Building A Sustainable Empire

Change is on the horizon this year in Morzine. In September 2018, the much talked about plans for a new cable car linking central Morzine directly to Avoriaz were officially announced, meaning a tweaked layout for the town centre and a lot of building work coming our way over the next few years. While the benefits of the new link are plentiful and will have a mainly positive impact on the local economy, a new ski lift could bring about a flurry of property development and, as with any ski resort town, spaces next to the lift will be hot property.

Morzine started life as a traditional French farming town and retains that atmosphere to this day, but it’s seen a lot of property development in recent years, as have Les Gets and Avoriaz. A large portion of that development has gone towards the luxury travel market.

And with a new lift coming, it begs the question; is Morzine still going to be an affordable place to live? Well, funny I should ask, because just last summer, the Mairie de Chamonix announced some new building regulations designed to make it easier for people to live in the town amongst scores of large, often empty, second homes, exclusive hotels, rising rental costs and booming house prices.

Chamonix and Morzine are similar in a lot of ways; both towns have large year-round populations, and boast traditional heritage alongside a booming tourist and luxury travel industry. Obviously tourism is a large factor in how a ski town functions, and provides a large chunk of work for resort residents, but what happens when those same residents are being priced out of the town they work in?

Chamonix has drawn a line. The Mairie de Chamonix claims that almost 70% of housing in the town is made up of second homes. This on its own isn’t great for the environment, but it also drives up house prices for locals, and means a lot of properties spend most of the year uninhabited.

In what the Mairie describe as an ‘extremely rare but necessary’ move, any new building with a surface area over 300m2 must now dedicate at least 25% of that to permanent residential housing. Furthermore, thanks to new national regulations regarding living in a communal building (like an apartment block with shared spaces) and use-of-land laws, Chamonix has found itself with a lot of large chalets being built in spaces for which they were not intended. New regulations are now in place to limit the construction of ‘super chalets’ that take up a disproportionate amount of land.

Next up is a building freeze in several zones around central Chamonix for a maximum of five years, preventing these areas from becoming  overdeveloped or filled with big empty houses. Any developments that are built must conform to a ‘global and thoughtful’ framework that’s beneficial to the commune and its future.

And finally, Chamonix has put in place new regulations to help the flow of local shops and businesses in the area, making it easier for them to operate in resort. While designer stores in Chamonix are commonplace, it’s also home to a large number of independently run shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. New regulations include a prohibition of change of use for anything other than commercial purposes (so you can’t buy a shop space and convert it into a luxury chalet), a 250m2 sales area limit for new businesses (meaning Sports Direct couldn’t just swoop in and open a megastore) and an obligation for new buildings in Chamonix’s commercial centre to reserve the ground floor for shops.

These regulations are designed to aid the sustainable development and future of Chamonix in a way that allows tourism to continue, but without alienating the population of year-round residents and local business owners. They also aim to preserve Chamonix’s heritage, history and community.

And indeed, Chamonix is not the only mountain town to think about its future and make changes. Switzerland’s Weber Law is in effect throughout the entire country and prevents the construction of new-build second homes in resorts where second homes make up over 20% of local housing. While this law was passed to prevent houses being built and staying empty most of the year, and to counteract foreign investment driving up house prices for locals, the law was not entirely warmly received. New-build properties are a major source of income for resort towns through construction and property management – as they are in Chamonix and Morzine, too.

Anyway, back to France. With all the development we’re seeing, could it be time for something like this in Morzine?

IMAGE: Sam Ingles

Well, the short answer is no. Gareth Jefferies of Haute Savoie estate agent alpine-property.com describes the changes in Chamonix as, “a well-intentioned response to a typical local problem.” Ski resorts, especially ones as popular as Chamonix, which attracts visitors year round, from hardcore mountaineers to tourists who want to go up the Aiguille du Midi, often fall in to the trap of becoming too exclusive or expensive to actually live in. Many Chamonix residents live in the nearby and more affordable communes of Les Houches, Argentiere and Servoz, while in resorts like Les Arcs many residents live at the base of the valley in Bourg Saint Maurice.

“Morzine suffers in a similar way to Chamonix, just not as badly.” Says Gareth, “Local people have the opportunity to live further down the valley still, although it is getting harder!”

The Mairie de Morzine-Avoriaz currently has no plans to make any changes to its building regulations, and although the super-chalet is beginning to make an appearance in Morzine and Les Gets, it’s too early to say if the towns will become overrun just yet. We have seen an increasing amount of locally owned hotels, homes and businesses being sold and converted into luxury accommodation over the past ten years, as well as new-builds designed for week-long stays rather than permanent residence. However, there’s still weight in the fact that many local families are still here, running hotels, restaurants and shops, and may well be for years to come. Morzine and Les Gets have managed to stay largely away from big business takeovers and are home to a number of independently run small businesses, French, British and other. While many residents do move further down the valley where it’s possible to get more for your money, the Mairie de Morzine-Avoriaz does offers a small amount of staff housing to seasonal workers. The new EMA development will also include much-needed social and year-round housing for residents.

There’s no doubt that Morzine and Les Gets are growing, developing and changing all the time, but many look upon the upcoming lift development as the next step in Morzine’s future; safeguarding it against bad snow years, too much traffic and growing pressure on the bus and ski lift network. Most importantly, it will continue to bring the flow of visitors the town needs to keep functioning. Change is happening, and has been for some time. But as with any traditional mountain town, we predict there are some things that will stay exactly the same.

The Mairie de Morzine-Avoriaz is currently running a large consultation on Project EMA, including lots of public seminars and workshops. Find out more HERE. Morzine-Avoriaz is also part of  the Communauté des Communes Haute-Chablais, which aims to bring together the local communes – find out more HERE.

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