Lander Lawmaker Thinks Free City Park Camping Is Unfair Competition

State Sen. Cale Case and Lander City Attorney Adam Phillips have clashed over people being allowed to camp free in City Park. Case says it’s unfair competition, but Phillips says it’s a public service.

CM
Clair McFarland

October 05, 20237 min read

A campsite in Lader City Park.
A campsite in Lader City Park. (Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily)

LANDER — The city attorney in Lander is advising the town against charging people to camp in the City Park, saying that would be unlawful government competition against private business.  

But for the town to allow campers in City Park for free is not competition – it’s providing a service, said Adam Phillips, who was asked to answer the legal question for the city.  

The lawmaker who crafted a law on government competition said he disagrees with Phillips’ interpretation.  

Phillips told the Lander City Council last week that if the city were to charge campers fees to stay in City Park, it would raise “bigger issues,” such as “whether we can use taxpayer money to compete with other local businesses.” 

People have been allowed to camp for free in Lander City Park for as long as many locals can remember.

To Charge, Or Not To Charge

City Council members recently have looked at the possibility of charging camp fees as a way to raise money to fix up ailing or aging town facilities.  

Phillips advised against that, citing Wyoming statute 9-2-3220, which created a website where Wyomingites can complain when they feel governments are competing unfairly with the private sector.  

Some City Council members pushed back against Phillips, saying that allowing free camping competes more with private businesses than charging fees would.   

“Free is actually the greater competition,” said Councilwoman Julia Stuble. 

Phillips said the free campout comprises a service, not competition.  

“If we’re operating something for free, the law more or less says it’s not free, it’s a service,” Phillips said. “That’s essentially the difference between creating competition and providing a service to the citizens.”  

Camping free of charge is allowed in parts of Lander City Park. The City Council is debating the question of whether free camping is unfair competition with local businesses.
Camping free of charge is allowed in parts of Lander City Park. The City Council is debating the question of whether free camping is unfair competition with local businesses. (Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily)

Lawmaker Bamboozled 

State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, was surprised when he heard Phillips’ analysis incorporate the law he sponsored.   

Case proposed the bill in 2010, but then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal vetoed it. The state Senate rejected Case’s bill the year after that. It became law in March 2012 when Gov. Matt Mead signed it.

Even then, it wasn’t perfect by Case’s standards. It established the complaints website, but it didn’t directly outlaw government competition.  

“There’s really no good law on whether (government can compete) or not,” Case told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “I tried to fill in a hole in that, letting people complain, hoping it would create a groundswell and get people thinking about what government should do, and what they shouldn’t.” 

The website didn’t take off.  

Phillips also bemoaned a lack of definitive laws on government competition during his presentation to City Council. He said he’s done a deep dive on the issue multiple times. The Wyoming Constitution “alludes” to the idea that government shouldn’t butt into business, but the law allows government to compete in specific instances, like with hospitals, education and prisons.  

“That’s about all I could find,” he said.  

Approached Wednesday at his office, Phillips declined to comment to Cowboy State Daily. He cited attorney-client privacy constraints.  

Fix It, Then 

The way Case sees it, Lander City Park competes against campgrounds with its free parking.  

“Of course they do,” he said. “It very realistically competes with at least four campgrounds close to Lander – in town or around.”  

Regardless of the debate, the city must defer to its attorney’s advice, Lander City Councilwoman Missy White told Cowboy State Daily.  

She also said that if Case has issues with the way people are interpreting state law, he can make those laws clearer.

“If Senator Case believes it’s being interpreted wrongly, then I’d love for him to amend the current statute so it’s clearer and we can all – not just Lander but all municipalities – avoid that misinterpretation,” said White.  

White said the debate first surfaced while city leaders were assessing Lander’s revenue streams and hunting for a way to upgrade the aging City Park bathrooms. They’re old, outdated and not accessible by federal disability-access standards, she said.  

“I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a legislator,” White said. “They’re the crafters and interpreters of state statute. So, if there’s a loophole, let’s get that closed.”  

Lander City Park Camping IMG 5435 10 5 23

Great Resource Though 

Ann-Marie O’Malley, manager and owner of the Sleeping Bear RV Park in Lander, didn’t seem to mind the competition.  

“It doesn’t really change things for us either way, whether it’s free or not,” said O’Malley, adding that state parks also offer camping.  

Often, there are different types of customers attracted to each kind of place. Customers who want the amenities the Sleeping Bear has to offer will go to the Sleeping Bear regardless, she said. 

“We’re just glad we’ve got Lander City Park here because it’s a great resource for the community.”  

Tooth-Brushing On A Bridge 

Maverick RV Park owner Scott Ross, on the other hand, said he doesn’t favor the free camping in City Park – and his concerns are from both the perspective of a taxpayer and of a private businessman.  

Maverick offers RV and tent spots. 

“But we hardly do any tent spots anymore, because people stay at the park for free,” Ross told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday.  

That's because camping at the park has increased dramatically in the past three years. The COVID-19 pandemic drove more people into outdoor recreational hobbies and boosted those numbers, Lander Assistant Mayor Rajean Strube-Fossen told Cowboy State Daily.

When locals walk through the park they often trudge through a busy neighborhood of campers. City staffers have to keep up with any refuse or damage the campers leave in their wake, Ross said.  

Charging a fee could help the town recoup its losses and keep its facilities clean and updated, he said.  

White empathized with Ross’s concern over the park’s recreational attractiveness.  

The Lander City Park abuts a scenic bridge and pathway on a woodsy hillside.  

“(I’ve) been through there when I’ve counted 50-plus vehicles, and people spilled over on to the pathway – and they’re brushing their teeth, cooking breakfast, with the dogs sitting there simply sleeping on the sidewalk,” said White.  

No Crime Nexus 

Lander Police Chief Scott Peters, however, told Cowboy State Daily that other than a few instances, there’s not a crime problem from the park camping.

Occasionally, he said, Riverton-area vagrants will get out of the jail in Lander and hang around town for a while, but Lander and the public bus lines will help those people get back to their homes in Riverton or the Wind River Indian Reservation for free.  

Case and White agreed that the campers seem well-behaved.  

White said she’d like to see more containment, possibly limiting RVs and campers to the areas north of the bridge abutting the park.  

She said her solution could spawn other concerns, however, including the possibility that “unhoused” people will seek out free camping in other, inconvenient parts of town and won't have places to stay.

White also would be in favor of assessing camp fees, she said: “If it were legal, yes.”   

Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter