Parliament works out kinks in second homes law

Parliament had to work out how to implement the second-home building limits that environmentalists such as Vera Weber, pictured here on February 19, 2015 in Bern, sought to protect landscapes and tourism. Marcel Bieri

Swiss lawmakers have agreed on how to enforce new limits on the construction of secondary properties.

This content was published on March 12, 2015 minutes and agencies

The measures, expected to take effect in 2016, were approved by parliament on Thursday to implement a controversial people’s initiative. It calls for the construction of second homes to be restricted to 20% of residential zones and of the total surface area of each commune.

Among the key requirements set by parliament is that communities – even ones where there isn't much of this type of construction – must provide authorities with an annual inventory of homes. Another is that second homes advertised by online rental services must comply with the new limits.

It remains up to the cabinet to decide exactly when the “Lex Weber” law takes effect. But voters could still have the final say if the measures are put to a referendum. So far the environmentalist Franz Weber Foundation and an affiliated group, Helvetia Nostra, that championed the new limits have agreed not to take that route.

Voters approved the new limits on the construction of second homes with the aim of protecting Swiss tourism and keeping the country’s natural landscapes free of too many second homes. Most of them are found in five of Switzerland’s 26 cantons: Bern, Graubünden, Ticino, Valais and Vaud.

Switzerland’s highest court later ruled that the limits adopted by Swiss voters would apply to building permits issued as of March 2012. That forced some builders to immediately halt construction.

Cold beds

Switzerland has approximately 500,000 second homes, and most of the ones that are in tourist regions are not commercially operated and are occupied on average 30 to 40 days a year, according to government figures.

But for the 440 municipalities where the rate of second homes exceeds 20%, parliament agreed to provide some leeway as long as the construction doesn’t result in more buildings that are seldom occupied.

New homes, for example, could be built out of old barns or rundown, unprofitable hotels. Second homes that were built before the March 2012 initiative was approved could be enlarged by up to 30%.

Parliament also did not impose specific limits on the number of square metres that could be built. And there is nothing to prevent owners from changing an existing home into a secondary property and building a new primary residence next to it.

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