Holiday home ambush rattles alpine communities

Tiny Cumbel is in the midst of a building boom

Despite a successful national vote against the profusion of holiday homes springing up in tourist regions, construction is still booming – much to the chagrin of several alpine communities.

This content was published on October 8, 2012
Peter Siegenthaler in Cumbel,

A popular initiative to limit the building of holiday homes was adopted in March, but many well-heeled people are now trying to obtain permits before restrictions kick in at the start of next year. The mountain village of Cumbel in canton Graubünden is one of the communities affected.

Situated in the scenic Val Lumnezia region, Cumbel used to be a picture postcard village comprising of a few old houses. But a profusion of newly constructed holiday homes are transforming the place, springing up not just in the village centre and outskirts but also in surrounding meadows.

For three or four weeks of the year these homes are inhabited, but for the rest of the time the shutters are pulled down during the day and at night the beds are empty.

On a rainy Wednesday in September, the only signs of life are construction workers or traffic flowing through the village en route to other places. No pedestrians are visible, the Larisch restaurant is closed and even the doors to the parish hall are closed on Wednesdays.

The only signs of activity can be observed in the cafeteria of the Da Casa Val Lumnezia retirement home where most of the residents hail from the valley. Today, some have been visited by children or grandchildren who live in the lowlands.

Village politics fail to interest the elderly guests these days, according to an employee at the home. She herself has no comment to make on the controversial second home debate, but her colleague Ursula Solèr, who lives in a neighbouring village, cannot hold back her opinion.

“I find it outrageous that outsiders have more apartments in the Val Lumnezia than locals,” she told “Young people can barely find an apartment for themselves in any of the villages in the valley.”

Had Solèr lived in Cumbel she would have joined the 45 residents - representing a quarter of  eligible voters - who called for a stop to the construction of second homes in Cumbel before a national law comes into force.

Lack of action

The federal government has been accused of dragging its feet over implementing a new law to back up the initiative against the “unrestricted construction of second homes” that was approved on March 11.

The legislation will not come into force until the start of next year and in the meantime construction can continue with far fewer restrictions. Many alpine communities have been inundated with building applications to beat the year’s end deadline.

In canton Graubünden, a handful of communities have responded to the flood of building applications with the adoption of so-called planning zones that effectively ban second home construction until the national law kicks in. That is exactly what the 45 Cumbel signatories had demanded from their local authorities.

Katharina Belser was one of the 45 residents who put her name to the document. She also actively helped launch the local initiative for a Cumbel planning zone in a bid to stop outsiders from bypassing the will of the community.

An earlier local planning zone demand - made before the national vote in March - had been unsuccessful. But this time, locals were more prepared to throw their weight behind the idea.

“We went from house to house and we collected 45 signatures in five days - more than enough,” Belser told “Even people from the construction industry signed. Some people did not want to - or did not dare to - actually sign the initiative, but we did not find anyone who thought the construction of second homes was a good idea.”

Corinne Arpagaus was another signatory. “It’s a shame that everywhere is being over-built,” she told “Everywhere you look there are new houses that do not fit into the local character and where the shutters are almost always closed.”

Only disadvantages

Some construction firms had profited from the rampant building phase, but only for a limited time, the organic farmer argued. Most village residents have hardly seen any benefits from second homes, only disadvantages. “Many holiday home owners only come for a few days during the vacations, and bring all their food with them,” she said.

The 245-strong community, where second homes already make up more than 60 per cent of all residential properties, has received applications to construct of 25 new apartments since March 11.

Local builder Otmar Arpagaus (no relation to Corinne Arpagaus) submitted the applications through his company. He is also on the five-member local council with personal responsibility for overseeing construction in the community.

Otmar Arpagaus was only willing to give his opinion to via email: “It goes without saying, that a councillor has to take a backseat on any decisions that could affect them personally.”

But village mayor and farmer Pius Bundi has little time for the objections, hinting to that they had come too late in the day. “They will be rejected,” he said, adding that any planning applications that met building standards.

On January 1 next year, Cumbel will merge with seven other villages in the valley under the umbrella of  a single authority.  “Under the terms of the merger we cannot accept new initiatives,” said Bundi,  justifying the council’s decision.

Vote effects

On March 11 this year, Switzerland voted by a narrow majority to adopt the initiative against the “unrestricted construction of second homes”.

The initiative states that no more than 20 per cent of residential buildings in certain communities can be holiday homes.

In communities where this limit has already been exceeded, it effectively rules out the future construction of second homes. But there is no requirement for existing second homes to be demolished.

Since March, a dispute has arisen about when the initiative will enter into force. In August, the Federal Council decided that the construction of second homes would be permitted in the affected communities until end of the year.

Hundreds of residents in many communities have filed complaints against the subsequent flood of construction applications. The growing pile of litigation can only be ruled upon by the Federal Court, which will take at least a year.

Several communities in canton Graubünden have adopted so-called planning zones that temporarily halt the construction of second homes.

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