Swiss dismiss freeze on construction zones

Environment Minister Sommaruga acknowledged that many citizens share the concerns of the Green Party to curb urbanisation but they relied on the strict application of current law. The picture shows the mountain resort of Verbier. Keystone

Voters in Switzerland have thrown out a proposal aimed at curbing urban sprawl. The initiative from the youth chapter of the Green Party failed to attract broad support.

Final results show 63.7% of voters and all 26 cantons on Sunday rejecting the proposed freeze on construction zones across the country.

Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the outcome showed that the initiative had too many flaws and that existing legislation was better suited to regulate building activities.

Admitting defeat, Luzian Franzini, co-president of the Green Party's youth chapter, said it was difficult to counter misleading arguments made by a broad alliance of opponents.

"The clear result is disappointing, but at least we were able to launch an interesting debate," he told Swiss public radio SRF.

The initiative's supporters argued that additional legal steps are needed to protect and preserve green spaces and arable land against rampant urbanisation in Switzerland.

The proposal foresaw a ban on the zoning of new construction land if the respective surface area is not compensated elsewhere.

It also wanted authorities to promote the creation of environmentally sustainable housing in urban areas, known as high-density constructions.

Campaigners handed in more than 113,000 signatures from citizens in 2016, calling for a nationwide vote on the issue. The proposal had the backing of the Green Party, the left-wing Social Democratic Party as well as most environmental organisations.

Too radical

At a news conference on Sunday, Sommaruga said a clear majority of voters agreed with the government's policy on zoning and planning amid concerns over higher rents.

"Rejection of the initiative is not tantamount to weakening environmental protection," she said. "Many citizens share the opinion of the initiative committee but they considered the proposals too radical."

She said voters wanted current law, approved in a nationwide ballot in 2013, to be applied strictly, notably shrinking development zones, and to avoid mistakes of the past being repeated.

Parliament is due to debate an amendment on construction outside development zones at a later stage.

During the latest campaigns, opponents from centre-right parties as well as the business community warned that the initiative risked blocking further economic development. 

They also said the total area of construction zones has not increased significantly since 2012.

Short campaign

The 37.4% turnout in Sunday's ballot was clearly below average despite a lively but short public campaign.

Early opinion polls found a majority of respondents coming out in favour, but support for the environmental initiative faded considerably when the actual campaigns by promoters and opponents got underway in mid-January.

Pollsters widely expected the initiative to be rejected - unlike the 2012 ballot box upset, when voters approved a proposal to limit the construction of holiday homes.

Key facts vote February 10:

Final result: 36.3% yes; 63.7% no

Turnout: 37.4%

As part of ongoing trial with e-voting, 226'635 citizens were given the option of casting their ballot online. Just over 19% of them made use of the possibility, according to the Federal Chancellery. 

About 5.3 million Swiss citizens, including registered members of the expatriate Swiss community, were eligible to take part in the February 10 nationwide ballot.

Votes on a broad range of issues, as well as elections, also took place in many cantons and municipalities across the country.

It was the first nationwide vote this year.

The urban sprawl initiative was the 216th proposal for a constitutional amendment to come to a nationwide vote in modern Swiss history. Only 22 have won a majority since 1893.

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