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The British Columbia government has tabled legislation aimed at cracking down on mega-mansions on protected agricultural land that would override the municipal zoning rules of cities that have set their own limits on house sizes.

Bill 52, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, if passed, would limit new house sizes to about 5,400 square feet, a government guideline that was recently backed by an independent committee looking into legislative and regulatory changes to better protect the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

Exemptions for homes needed to support farming would require approval by the Agricultural Land Commission. The commission, an independent tribunal mandated to preserve agricultural land and encourage farming, administers the ALR, which was established in 1973 to protect land with prime agricultural conditions for farming and ranching. It currently protects about 4.6 million hectares of land.

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The legislation would reinstate one zone for all ALR land in B.C. – eliminating the previous two-zone structure – and increase penalties for dumping construction debris and other toxic waste on the protected land.

Announcing the legislation on Monday, Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham blamed the previous Liberal government for allowing the ALR to be undermined for years.

“Instead of protecting farmland, the old government let wealthy speculators drive up property values year after year, and let some of B.C.'s best farmland get turned into estates for mega-mansions,” she said in Victoria.

The provincial legislation would override the zoning rules of cities such as Richmond, where the issue has been hotly debated. Richmond city councillors in May had voted in favour of two motions to maintain residential buildings on ALR land at nearly 11,000 square feet, while also allowing for second residential buildings of up to about 3,200 square feet.

Richmond Councillor Bill McNulty, who had put forward the motion to keep the maximum size at 11,000 square feet rather than a smaller limit, said he did so because restricting house size alone does not necessarily encourage agriculture.

The councillor said Monday that he was pleased the provincial government is stepping in.

“For too long, the provincial government, particularly the NDP government, has not done its job,” Mr. McNulty said in an interview. “This is a provincial thing, the Agricultural Land Commission, the agricultural land bank. It’s the province’s responsibility. For too long, they expected the cities and municipalities to deal with this issue … so the fact they’re looking at it is a good thing.”

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Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who had opposed the motion, said Monday he believed that smaller house size restrictions would stop a lot of speculation on farmland, making it more affordable.

Richmond City Council will hold a committee meeting Tuesday, as scheduled prior to Monday’s announcement, to debate restricting house sizes on farmlands to 5,200 square feet.

A 2016 Globe and Mail investigation revealed that investors and speculators exploited tax breaks for farmland by purchasing land designated for farming and using it for development and illegal hotels. B.C. law stipulates that agricultural properties with more than two acres can keep their farm status – and all their tax breaks – as long as they sell just $2,500 worth of farm products a year.

Adam Olsen, spokesman for agriculture for the B.C. Green Party caucus, said he was relieved that the government is taking action on the issue.

“The proliferation of mega-mansions on B.C. farmland has driven up prices at a time when the industry faces a demographic crisis,” Mr. Olsen said in a statement. “The cost of farmland is cited as the number one barrier to young farmers hoping to enter the market. Keeping farmland at a price that is competitive for farmers, not real estate speculators, is crucial.”

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