Builders race the clock in tourist regions

Restrictions on holiday homes has not slowed construction Keystone

Seven months after voters accepted a people’s initiative imposing quotas on holiday homes, uncertainty reigns in affected regions. The cabinet’s interim directive on how to implement the decision has added to the confusion.

This content was published on October 8, 2012 minutes

“This uncertainly is poisoning the tourism sector. We have total chaos, because everyone can appeal to the Federal Court,” Peter Bodenmann, hotelier in canton Valais and former centre-left Social Democrat politician, told

“Do what you like, but don’t tell the public that the Federal Court will decide whether the building permit is valid or not in two or three years,” he added.

According to Bodenmann, the initiative imposing a cap on the number of holiday homes in each commune which surprisingly won the day on March 11, is “miserably formulated and every law professor interprets it differently”.

The shock result was a great but unfortunately missed opportunity to carry out necessary structural reform in tourism, said Bodenmann, who blames “bad tourism politicians and public servants”.

To build or not?

The initiative bans the building of more holiday homes in communes where the share of this type of property is regularly over 20 per cent. More than 500 communes, particularly in mountain regions of Valais, Graubünden and Bern, are affected.

The question of when the restrictions should apply was only raised after the vote and has been argued over since. The cabinet’s decision in August to postpone the provisional implementation of the initiative from September 1, 2012, to January 1, 2013, did not settle the issue.

Legal experts also dispute whether the government should impose such regulations. This requires a clear legal basis, but the legislation on the holiday homes initiative has yet to be formulated.

Because the supporters of the initiative consider the people’s will applies from the day after the vote, long-running legal wrangles are inevitable over whether communes should be allowed to build any holiday residences after March 11.

Some communes (see accompanying article) have reacted to the uncertainty by issuing so-called planning zones, allowing them to suspend planning applications until it has become clear how the courts will decide on the question.  

But in many tourist communes, especially in cantons Valais and Graubünden, many permits are being granted before the provisional rules come into force. The number of appeals is similarly high.

In Valais, in Riederalp alone, Bodenmann said applications for a further 1,500 holiday beds have been granted. The number of applications for building permits in the first six months of 2012 have more than trebled in comparison to the average six-monthly figures from 1994 to 2011.

“This statute is leading to local guerrilla wars everywhere. In one area you see the building business is stronger, in another those who want to encourage gentler tourism have the upper hand.”  

The climate of uncertainty will last for several years, Bodenmann added.

Chaos in Graubünden

“The situation is terrible hectic and also bad for business. It’s causing chaos,“ said Duri Bezzola, a former centre-right Radical parliamentarian and architect from Scuol in canton Graubünden. “So far it has spawned more building projects than it has stopped.”

Bezzola is on the board of a building company himself. “The flood of building activity is bad for business in these valleys,” he complained.

“The sector will probably be overwhelmed with these projects which are being submitted and approved, and sometimes even partly built, in haste.”

And then suddenly it will be over. “If the businesses are intelligent, they will pull back, so as not to create overcapacity that will last for years and endanger their existence,” Bezzola said.

Currently there isn’t much interest from buyers, he adds. In many areas, the impression is that more properties will soon be released onto the market.  

“As a buyer I would also probably wait. If in the short term there is an oversupply of properties, prices will fall,” Bezzola predicted.

Communes seek advice

Since the cabinet agreed to the second homes directive, dozens of queries from cantons and communes have been flooding in to the Federal Spatial Development Office. People who want to know under what circumstances holiday homes can still be approved.

The elaboration of the statute will ultimately be a matter for the courts, Gabriele Hefit, a legal expert at the office told “We can only tell the communes how we see it.”

“Because of the December 31 deadline, many communes want to grant as many permits as possible under the old law, therefore they also want to make sure that it is still in force this year.”

“We aim to have a draft bill of the implementation legislation before parliament towards the end of 2013,” Hefti said.

A holiday homes working group, with representatives from interest groups, the state and cantons, has its first meeting in October. It is impossible to say how long it will take parliament to adopt the law, and whether another referendum will be launched in the meantime.

The March 2012 vote

The initiative, narrowly passed by a one per cent margin, had support from voters in both urban and rural areas. Only Valais – a traditional tourist region – recorded an overwhelming majority of "no" votes.

The second homes people's initiative was one of only 19  accepted by voters in modern Swiss history. 180 initiatives have gone to the polls. 

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Second homes

There are some 500,000 second homes in Switzerland. Canton Valais has the most with 62,000 occasionally occupied properties, followed by Graubünden (48,000), Bern (45,000) and Vaud (43,000).

The cantons with the highest proportion of holiday homes are Graubünden (37%), Valais (36%), Ticino (24%) and Obwalden (22%).

573 communes have a recorded rate of holiday homes of higher than 20 per cent, with some over 80%.

Most second homes in tourist regions are not commercially operated and are occupied on average 30 to 40 days per year.

(Source: Federal Spatial Development Office)

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