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Court ruling on holiday homes sparks controversy

Construction on second homes whose building permits were approved after March 2012 must stop immediately, the Federal Court ruled Keystone

Switzerland’s highest court has decided that the limits on new holiday homes adopted by Swiss voters last year would apply to building permits issued as of March 2012. Builders will be forced to immediately halt construction on affected homes.

On March 11, 2012, Swiss voters accepted an initiative stipulating that the percentage of holiday homes in a particular commune may not exceed 20 per cent. However, questions remained over when the ruling would go into effect.

The Graubünden Administrative Court had previously ruled that only building permits issued after January 1, 2013 would be affected by the new law.

However, the Federal Court decided Wednesday that the legislation is straightforward enough to be implemented as of the date the initiative was accepted. The president of the court, judge Jean Fonjallaz, stated that “the definition of a second home is not unclear”.

The decision makes life tough for building contractors and individuals with homes currently under construction, and many reactions to the ruling have been bitter, citing expected job losses and economic consequences.

Tourist regions react

Jean-Michel Cina, a senior member of the Valais cantonal government, said that the court went against the point of view of the canton and of “the majority of law professors” when it ruled that the legislation was applicable as of March 2012.

Simon Epiney, mayor of the town of Anniviers in canton Valais, called the court decision a “catastrophe” that weakened an entire economic sector in a single blow.

Cantons Valais, Graubünden, Vaud and Bern, which have the most tourist activity largely due to their ski resorts, experienced a flood of building permit applications after the vote, with applicants assuming the law wouldn’t take effect immediately. More than 250 of those applications are currently pending in federal court proceedings.

However, leading environmentalist Franz Weber described the court ruling was good for Switzerland. “We fought for a good thing and we will continue to fight,” he said.  

Dealing a further blow to home builders, the Federal Court also decided Wednesday that Helvetia Nostra, the organisation that launched the initiative curbing second homes, is entitled to appeal cases related to building permits for second home construction.

Previously, when Helvetia Nostra had attempted to appeal building permits on the grounds that they were not valid after the March 2012 decision, the organisation was either told it could not appeal or that the law would not go into effect until January 2013. Wednesday’s court rulings cleared up both issues.

The cabinet members have not yet weighed in on the ruling. Environment Minister Doris Leuthard was quoted as saying it too early to make a judgment. 

A study published by the BAKBASEL research institute in February showed that around 2,500 second homes were built in Switzerland per year between 2000 and 2010, amounting to annual investments worth CHF1.2 billion ($1.3 billion). The study also predicted the loss of 8,600 jobs by 2015 as a result of the legislation, with some expected to be replaced eventually for a net job loss of 4,800 in 2025.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR