Critics and officials are predicting an exodus of artists from Songzhuang village, a vibrant cultural community on the eastern fringes of the capital, after a Beijing court yesterday ruled in favour of a farmer in a land dispute with a well-known painter. The Beijing No 2 Intermediate People's Court upheld a Tongzhou District People's Court decision in July that painter Li Yulan's purchase of a farmhouse in Songzhuang in 2002 was invalid. Li was ordered to move out within 90 days. Li's appeal was rejected on the ground that the transaction breached land-ownership regulations that bar urban residents from buying rural property. Observers fear the case will set a precedent and lead to more artists who bought properties in Songzhuang being sued by local farmers. They said the case could trigger an exodus of artists from the village. Some painters believe the court decided to rule in favour of the farmer after the State Council warned last week against such transactions involving rural property. 'I got the court notice on the second day after the warning came out. I had a hunch that I was going to lose. But I insist we did nothing wrong,' Li said. Her case could affect more than 1,500 artists in the community, about 200 of whom have bought village houses, mostly with the approval of village heads and the township government. Local farmers agreed to sell their house to the artists when land prices were low. But many regretted their decision when land prices in Songzhuang rose fourfold as its reputation as an arts centre grew. In the past year, a dozen other artists have been taken to court by the villagers who sold them properties. Internationally acclaimed painter Fang Lijun was the second to be involved in such a dispute, although it is believed Fang settled out of court. 'We are worried that more and more farmers are going to want their houses back now,' painter Cheng Li said. Drawn by Songzhuang's tranquillity, spacious courtyard homes and low rent, artists began moving to the village in 1994. Critics say villagers are taking advantage of the rigid rules on land ownership to renege on sale contracts and cash in on soaring house prices. The lower court awarded Li 93,808 yuan in compensation for the house she bought for 45,000 yuan and which she spent 20,000 yuan renovating. The intermediate court did not award Li compensation, but said she could obtain recompense by suing the vendor for breach of contract.