The Second Home Initiative in Switzerland
By Peter Sonnekus-Williams
On March 11, Swiss voters decided to restrict, on a national basis, the construction of holiday homes to 20 per cent of residential areas and of the total surface area within each commune. A people's initiative, titled "End the unlimited construction of secondary residences," was launched by Helvetia Nostra, a foundation created by Franz Weber. Weber, an environmentalist and his supporters made the following points from which the initiative is based: A square meter of land in Switzerland is lost to construction every second. At present 8,000 secondary residences either houses or apartments are built in Switzerland yearly. Not only is open space disappearing, many of the constructed houses and apartments are empty 300 days of the year. The nationwide vote resulted in a 50.6% agreement with the initiative. The result in Canton Bern was 54.9% in favour of the initiative however 82.8% of the public within the community of Saanen voted against the initiative. In the community of Saanen where holiday homes represent 49% of all dwellings at present, the idea of a dramatic shift away from the economic reliance on construction and second home related economic activity certainly brought the community together in terms of a common point of view regarding the initiative. In practical terms this vote results in a moratorium on all new secondary home construction in Switzerland. How secondary homes will be defined and controlled and when this restriction gets implemented still remains to be seen. A conference including Cantons, parties, Swiss unions and organizations took place on 18th June with the aim of finding solutions for the still open questions and defenitions. It is proposed that all questions and definitions are to be resolved by the end of the summer holidays. Aldo Kropf council leader of Gstaad has requested from the federation that they clarify and define what "cold beds" are. These "cold beds" have been one of the main arguments of the initiators however they also state that vacation homes which are in commercial use shall not be affected. They suggest that communities with a number reflecting more than 20 percent secondary homes shall accept only those building requests which will provide "warm beds". They define secondary homes as not being in use as domicile In the community of Saanen a group has been founded who oppose this new law and wish to fight for the protection of private residential property development, ownership and the continuum of related places of work in mountain regions. Hanspeter Spychiger, president of "Gewerbeverein Saanenland" confirms that the union already comprises of more than 600 members. His main fear is that within two years the region will feel the economic and social consequences of the law and he estimates that a third of the current work and job market will be lost. Spychiger says that the targetted "cold beds" generate a considerable amount of money. ‘Further when the secondary residence owners are in the region they use local infrastructures extensively by supporting local restaurants, stores and businesses. Further many of them financially support local sporting and cultural activities. The new initative will not only result in jobs lost but also a decrease in tax incomes for the community. ‘It's doubtful if expensive infrastructures like the "Bergbahnen" will have enough finances to be continued’ - he says. The new law generates many questions. The definition of "secondary residence" is still open and a particularly sensitive point relates to whether or not construction applications can be accorded until the end of this year. As per an intergovernmental conference of the "mountain Cantons", who have accepted that construction applications can still be accorded until the end of 2012, Senior civil servant Christoph Neuhaus says that the 20 percent law will come into force only in January 2013. In essence this means that buildings which were acquired or built before 11th March 2012 still fall under the rules of the old law. Furthermore the community of Saanen points out that building applications which were pending during the acceptance of the new law will be treated according to the old law. A different opinion is held by the organization, the "Bundesamt für Raumentwicklung - ARE " who has published a press release based on the outcome of investigations done by a federal work group who is responsible for the clarification of open questions regarding the initiative. ‘ARE’ say this constitution regulation shall be in force from 11th March 2012. Their suggestion, therefore is to suspend the building applications which are in question until the question of law is clarified. If the decision should be that the initiative comes into force from 11th March 2012, then "ARE" can't tell what judicially is going to happen with the building applications submitted after that date. For the communities in Canton Bern this suggestion remains just that, a suggestion and the final decision relating to the acceptance of building applications, or not, until end 2012 stays with the local building authorities. It has been confirmed however by ‘ARE’ that it seems likely that existing main residences can continue to be rented or bequeathed as secondary residences. This defining topic for the Saanenland, has taken up much debate and speculation over the past months, shortly there will be clearer definitions and this will more than likely lead to further debate and more negotiation. According to the huge difference between the national and local vote however it is clear that the Saanenland has a particularly unique case and deep investigation into this matter and how to resolve it is required.