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23 April, 2021

Tourism Tragics: Council laws stifle Covid camping

“Somerset officially commits to being Small Business Friendly,” Somerset Mayor Cr Graeme Lehmann proclaimed on April 14 this year. “By signing this charter we are making a pledge that we will support small business which has never been more important than now with such trying and unpredictable times,” he continued. After fighting Somerset Regional Council for over eight months after she was banned from allowing camping near Kilcoy Creek at her Mount Kilcoy property, Nat Lowndes is taking her fight right to the Council table. Clearly frustrated, Nat says “Council-approved camping would cost farmers thousands of dollars.”

By Melissa Thornton

Nat Lowndes

Somerset Regional Council has classified camping on rural properties as tourist parks.

Nat Lowndes has been fighting Somerset Regional Council for over eight months after she was banned from allowing camping near Kilcoy Creek at her Mount Kilcoy property.

Initially aimed at providing some reprieve to city dwellers following the Covid-19 shut-down and travel restrictions in 2020, Nat opened up her property for self-sufficient camping to allow others to enjoy the benefits of living in a rural area and on a farm, as well as anticipating there would be benefits for local businesses during the Covid-19 recovery with additional people visiting the area and spending money.

When Somerset Regional Council received a complaint about the camping, they shut it down. Even after months of trying to negotiate terms with

Council, such as only allowing campers that are self-sufficient/ contained with toilet facilities in their vehicles and limiting the number of campers to a maximum of 30, Nat is still hitting road blocks.

In recent correspondence received from Somerset Regional Council, Nat said her proposed activity was classed as a ‘tourist park’ and Council provided her with information outlining the processes and costs involved in meeting council requirements to approve the use.

“We are not a tourist park,” Nat said this week.

“Somerset Regional Council processes require a $17,000 outlay from farmers to allow campers on their land.

“Somerset Council requires farmers to fork-out nearly $10,000 to submit an APPLICATION to allow a minimal amount of campers on their private land — 10 sites/30 people maximum. ($7,000 approx in consultancy fees, $2,650 application fee plus Local Law fees). This is NON-REFUNDABLE, even if the application is not successful.

“Then, if successful, Council requires ANOTHER $7,450 ($745/camp site x 10).

“But there’s more…farmers will also be required to supply amenities, as they will not pass a local law under the “Tourist Park” code, even if you only offer a paddock for self-sufficient and self-contained campers. They also require a MCU (Material Change of Use of the Agricultural Land) to accommodate a tourist park!

“So, even before you have a thought to help your local struggling township with tourists or be part of the Queensland Recovery Scheme, you’ll need to have at least $17,000 ready to cover the costs of the council process, not to mention the amount of time and expense to get your ‘tourist park’ ready to pass the red tape.”

In a media release issued by Somerset Regional Council on April 14, 2021, titled ‘Somerset officially commits to being Small Business Friendly’, Mayor Cr Graeme Lehmann, said, ‘By signing this charter we are making a pledge that we will support small business which has never been more important than now with such trying and unpredictable times’.

“How about Council start with reducing this red tape for farmers to earn a little extra pocket money and help our struggling towns with tourists within Somerset and create a new code that relates to self-sufficient camping,”

Nat said. “I will not give up. I’m still waiting on the ‘Right To Information’ documents I requested seven weeks ago from the Council.”

Nat stated that she is so frustrated on this matter, that she may even consider running as a candidate at the next Local Government elections (due in 2024).

“It’s time for change,” Nat concluded.

Bronwyn Davies is the Advocate for Business across the Region in her role as Chamber President for Kilcoy.

“I have been supporting Nat from the beginning of this journey, after reaching out to her for her insight into the diversity of agritourism and star gazing at her Mt Kilcoy property.

“While I fully support the Council signing the Small Business Friendly Charter, I have great concerns that despite the community support — the proof that agritourism/bush camping is money- making for the region’s economy; and our State and Federal Governments engaging in activities that support the rise in domestic and agritourism — that local laws will block progress.”

With thousands of social media followers, Nat Lowndes has attracted hundreds of supportive comments for her plight and ignited disbelief and anger from people with commentary including “greedy council” and “money- hungry council.” Another local land-owner said, “it’s hypocrisy at its best”.

“Here we have the Somerset Regional Council mayor stating publicly that they want to support small business, but then on the other hand they are making it as hard as possible with overthe- top red tape and exorbitant fees.

“Covid-19 has shown us that there is a real demand for people seeking the outdoor lifestyle for a break. The fresh air, the views, the animals, sitting around a campfire — the appreciation of simple pleasures. If farmers want to open-up their properties to help people enjoy this, then why is Council making it so hard and so expensive?

“Farmers have been through enough with drought and fires. This is a chance for them to help the entire region with the Covid-19 recovery so why not make the process easier and cheaper?”

Somerset Councillor Cheryl Gaedtke posted Council’s media release: “Somerset officially commits to being Small Business Friendly” on her social media website on April 14, 2021, and received several comments which reflected Nat Lowndes’ plight.

Melissa Pratten, another Mount Kilcoy farmer, said in her comment on Cr Gaedtke’s post: “It’s time for a change. I know you (Cr Gaedtke) love and support local business, but the change needs to be in rules and regulations and costings — that all falls on council’s shoulders. I would love to do a farm stay at our place, but the cost to kick it off is out of range for us.

“People want so badly in this day and age to get out of towns and into paddocks. We have friends that come from Brisbane to visit, and the first thing they do is buy locally and show so much support for Kilcoy and surrounds, it’s admirable to say the least.

“Our visitors love dirt roads, long grass, wallabies bouncing around, a running creek, all that nature has to offer and more. We need simplicity in our lives and be able to share it with lovely people and families that are looking for that tranquillity too.

“Families are desperate and need the basics of life … a simple camp on the creek is all it takes to achieve this. I have faith that you will be able to help achieve the change needed.”

In response to Melissa Pratten’s comments, Cr Gaedtke responded by offering a meeting, saying, “how about you and I meet with our town planning staff to discuss and understand all processes and associated costs?”

This offer to a meeting inspired condemnation from another person who said, “Somerset Council needs to make sure everyone gets the same opportunities.”

In contrast to Somerset Regional Council’s requirements for rural camping, many other regions are trying to help boost agritourism by reducing red tape and costs.

In New South Wales, planning changes have been made to help businesses and regional tourism.

In a report released on March 9, the NSW government said farms across regional New South Wales will be able to open their gates to visitors and diversify their businesses under proposed changes to the planning system as part of Covid-19 recovery measures.

Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, Rob Stokes, said the proposed changes would make it easier for farmers across NSW to start, run and grow an agritourism business, such as farm stays, cafes, restaurants, retreats, roadside stalls and small wedding reception venues.

“These changes reflect our commitment to supporting regional communities to rebuild and recover from the devastating impacts of drought, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr Stokes said.

“We’re simplifying the planning rules to help our farmers adapt to change, create new jobs, and drive their productivity and profit.”

Minister for Finance and Small Business, Damien Tudehope, said the proposed changes would build on work by the NSW Small Business Commissioner and Service to help farmers diversify through an agritourism pilot program, part of the Making Business Easier initiative.

Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, Stuart Ayres, said the NSW Government was committed to reform that would grow the visitor economy.

“Agritourism has been hidden under red tape for too long. This initiative will make it easier to do business, create great agricultural experiences and attract more visitors to regional NSW,” Mr Ayres said.

“Agritourism offers a multi-billion-dollar economic opportunity that can keep farmers on the farm and jobs in the regions.”

On February 23, 2021, the Queensland Farmers Federation announced it’s partnering with Airbnb to grow Queensland agritourism.

“Agritourism provides opportunities for farmers to expand their businesses and market their produce through alternative channels, while gathering valuable feedback from consumers,” CEO of QFF, Dr Georgina Davis, said.

“Together the agriculture and tourism sectors will further unlock the potential for agritourism in the state, add value beyond the farm gate and share the incredible and diverse regions that our farmers call home.”

More information on Natalie Lowndes’ battle with Somerset Regional Council can be viewed on her Facebook page “Mount Kilcoy Creek Camp.”

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