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Houses, including one under construction, are seen on farm land in an aerial view, in Richmond, B.C., on May 16, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Richmond’s city council has voted to limit the size of homes built on protected farmland over concerns that speculators have been buying up some of the province’s most productive land to build mansions.

The new rules, passed in a meeting that began on Monday at 7 p.m. and stretched into early Tuesday morning, restrict the size of houses in the Agricultural Land Reserve to 400 square metres – about 4,300 square feet. The bylaw goes beyond new provincial guidelines.

“I feel that 400 square metres is the only way to stop speculation,” said Richmond Councillor Carol Day, who voted in favour of the bylaw. “Because if you cannot build a bigger house than what is allowed on residential lots, then there is no advantage to build on farm land. Cheap land that allows for megamansions is too tempting.”

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There was no cap on home sizes on ALR land in Richmond until last year, when council lowered the maximum house-size limit to 1,000 square metres. City council rejected a proposal earlier this year to impose stricter limits, prompting calls from housing advocates for the provincial government to intervene.

The legislature passed a bill last month to cap houses on ALR land at 500 square metres. The provincial government has said the law is designed to ensure ALR land is used for farming and ranching rather than building mansions.

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.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie and Councillors Alexa Loo and Linda McPhail voted against the bylaw, instead arguing that the local bylaw should reflect the higher provincial limit.

“My feeling was the issue was far more than just size of house,” Mr. Brodie said.

“I felt that reducing the size from 500 to 400 square metres is detrimental to farmers and farming.”

The council meeting heard from a number of farmers who opposed the house limits, arguing the new rules would unfairly limit what they could do with their land.

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The new bylaw requires the septic tank to be on the farm home plate. Other buildings such as large greenhouses and barns are not affected by the new zoning rules, Ms. Loo said.

Richmond Councillor Harold Steves, who voted for the new bylaw and has long advocated for such restrictions, said it wasn’t farmers who were opposed, but rather the farm owners. He said that the new bylaw is a step in the right direction for the future of the ALR, ensuring that the land is used for farming.

“The farmers that spoke are ones that want to be able to sell their land for extra money to non-farmers,” Mr. Steves said. “It was the farmland owners that were there last night in large numbers.”

Steve Easterbrook, owner and farmer of Rabbit River Farms in Richmond and member of the city’s agricultural advisory committee, says that the initial 1,000 square metres was a compromise between the council and farmers. He is opposed to further restrictions on home size.

“The concerns of [many] of the farmers in Richmond are that we do not want our equity base inhibited,” Mr. Easterbrook said.

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