LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Canton Vaud’s winery open days are this weekend and if there is one place sure to pull the crowds, it’s the Lavaux Unesco World Heritage site with its terraced vineyards. The area itself is so splendid it’s easy to overlook the ongoing battle and efforts to keep it that way.
This weekend the crowd should find perfect weather, with highs of 18-21 Thursday to Sunday and sunshine Thursday giving way to occasional clouds the rest of the weekend.
Time for suncream for those terraces overlooking the lake. One of the buzz phrases here is “the three suns” – the one in the sky, the mirror of it reflected by the lake and the sunshine absorbed and released slowly by all those stone walls. Jean-Claude Biver, whose Hublot watch firm recently became a sponsor of Vaud wines, reminded journalists at a press conference that this is one of the great features of Lavaux.
Visitors will also find beautiful wines, for to become and remain a wine producer here you have no choice but to take advantage of these very special terroirs and turn the grapes into very good wine. Most of the producers here are from families who have worked these vines for centuries; wannabe Lavaux winemakers will find it hard to buy land or vines because no one ever lets go of either.
The 18 May vote on Lavaux soundly defeated
And that brings me to what you won’t find, which is a place overrun by land developers or real estate speculators. The idea that Lavaux is, or soon will be filled with metal cranes, was behind the proposal by ecologist Franz Weber and his foundation that was put to voters three weeks ago. The “Sauver Lavaux” (save Lavaux) popular initiative asked canton Vaud voters to clamp down on virtually any changes to the area, feeding on fears fueled by regular media reports about the high price of housing in the Lake Geneva region.
The initiative was resoundingly refused; its defeat seemed anything but assured, however, in the run-up to the 9 May vote, despite virtually no support for it in the cantonal parliament and the opposition of the 10 communes that make up Lavaux as well as the wine producers and their families who constitute the majority of people who live there. The cantonal parliament vote before it was taken to voters was 128 against the initiative, 9 for with 3 abstaining.
The Weber initiative was part of a larger package of federal and cantonal ballot items 18 May that included whether to buy new Swedish fighter planes (no), banning pedophiles from work with children (yes), creating a national minimum wage (no)
Why the rest of the world cares about Lavaux wineries’ problems
The initiative, filed in 2009, played a useful role, as Swiss ballot items are often designed to do. It drew attention to the problems faced by this very special area. The area has 14,000 residents and covers 898 hectares zoned as follows: 2% public service (schools, parking lots, cemeteries); 78% no building, which includes 574 hectares of vines; 20% which can be built and that includes existing buildings.
Weber’s is not the first “save Lavaux” initiative, however, nor is it his first. In 1977 nearly 55 percent of voters said yes to the first efforts to protect the area by law and in 1979 a law called LLavaux defined the perimeters of Lavaux and drew up lines for agricultural, viticultural and habitation areas. The law disappeared when a new cantonal constitution was drawn up in 2003, but in 2005 voters, at Weber’s urging, agreed by more than 80 percent to “save Lavaux” by giving it constitutional protection. Wine producers in the area put up a plaque thanking him at the time.
Four years later Lavaux was accepted as a Unesco World Heritage site. Unesco says it considers these “to have outstanding universal value” but a listing doesn’t provide any additional legal protection, something not always well understood in the region.
Cantonal authorities in 2011, in an effort to bring LLavaux up to date, revised it. The changes included reducing by 11 hectares areas zoned for construction, and a commission was set up to encourage the quality of any building work in the area. Weber wanted more stringent measures.
This time voters were asked to make three choices about Lavaux. Vaud rules allow you to vote for both measures, thus the third:
- Do you accept the popular initiative “Save Lavaux”, which proposes to change the law of 12 February 1979 on the Lavaux protection plan, LLavaux?
- Counter-projet: Do you accept as a Cantonal Council’s counter-proposal the legal change of January 2014 that modifies the law on the Lavaux protection plan of 12 February 1979?
- If both pass, which one would you prefer?
What the Weber initiative wanted
The Weber initiative called for a moratorium on all construction in the future except for permits already issued and underground building. This included the option for retirement homes, low-cost housing, daycare centres and other public service building that is part of Vaud’s project to decentralize and move away from intensive urbanization as part of sustainable urban planning.
It also called for extending the perimeters of Lavaux to include some neighbouring areas that were not defined, but that at a minimum would have included the communes of Corsier, Chexbres, Jongny and Cremières.
Lavaux, had the initiative passed, would have lost local control over planning permissions, with responsibility for this going to the canton.
The initiative did not provide for any funding for its measures.
Here’s what voters approved
The canton argued that while it agreed with the overall aim of improving protection, the initiative would have put Lavaux under a bell jar. Instead, voters opted for the following:
- The number of hectares, now 40, where building can still take place will be cut and future housing will be concentrated in areas with the least impact on the overall site. As a result, the number of potential new future residents falls to 1,800, a cut of 3,500. The commission set up in 2012 remains in place, charged with overseeing the quality of any new housing.
- The cantonal plan to reduce dependence on urban centres for public services remains in place, with the reduced potential population growth theoretically making it easier to situate new buildings in places with low impact on the site.
- The Lavaux borders remain those set in 1977, with the canton noting that current measures are adequate for a “correct transition” in and out of the area.
- Cantonal zoning will remain in place for 80% of the area, including all current agricultural and viticultural zoning as well as intermediate zones whose land use has not yet been set. Communes will continue to have some room to maneuver for housing and public service buildings.
- The canton will provide 35% funding for public and private projects that aim to remedy damage to the site or to improve the landscape. The latter could include, for example, removing power lines, repairing dry stone walls, better integrating existing structures into the landscape.