The Los Angeles Clippers have received a boost in their efforts to develop a new arena in the city of Inglewood after a judge ruled the plans do not violate California’s Surplus Land Act (SLA), one of multiple legal battles the NBA basketball franchise has been fighting over the project.

Uplift Inglewood, a community group that supports affordable housing, filed a lawsuit in June 2018 arguing that the City of Inglewood’s exclusive negotiating agreement with Murphy’s Bowl, a Clippers-controlled company, violated the SLA.

This Act stipulates that public agencies must give first preference to affordable housing, recreation and schools when surplus land becomes available. In June 2017, Murphy’s Bowl and Inglewood reached an agreement to use 22 acres of vacant, city-owned land to investigate the development of a privately financed arena.

In April, Judge Mary H. Strobel rejected arguments from both Inglewood and Murphy’s Bowl, who had called for the case to be dismissed in the belief that the city’s ownership of the land meant they didn’t breach the SLA. This meant the case went to trial, with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel S. Murphy now ruling to deny three of Uplift Inglewood’s claims, while dismissing the other two.

“Even if the ENA leads to an offer from Murphy’s Bowl to acquire the Property, Petitioner cites no evidence or contractual terms that would prevent City from complying with the (Act) prior to entering a final sale agreement with Murphy’s Bowl,” Murphy wrote in a 31-page opinion, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

“While Petitioner argues that (Act) negotiations by City at that point would not be in good faith, the court is not persuaded that the evidence supports that conclusion.”

Attorneys for the City of Inglewood had argued that the land was not suitable for housing due to its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport flight paths and opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration due to aircraft noise.

In a statement reported by CBS Los Angeles, Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts described the ruling as a “tremendous victory for the people of Inglewood and a major step forward.” He added: “The people of Inglewood have time and again stood up for, testified for and voted in favour of this project. It would have been a travesty to allow a few malcontents to sabotage so much prosperity for this community.”

However Uplift Inglewood has signalled its intention to continue its fight against the project. The group said in a statement: “The purpose of the Surplus Land Act is to make public land available for affordable housing when a city is no longer using it. Yet, Judge Murphy found that the sale of public land to a billionaire to build a basketball arena is equivalent to the city continuing to use that land for its own purposes.

“This tortured interpretation gives the City a pass on clear legal requirements to first consider the land for affordable housing and park development.”

In September, the Clippers sought to enhance its bid to develop a new arena in Inglewood by stating it will commit $100m (£78m/€90.7m) in benefits for the city. In July, the Clippers revealed the first images of the planned new arena and the team has said its “community benefit plan” would be the largest of its type for a stadium or entertainment venue developed in the state of California.

The Clippers have played at Staples Center, owned and operated by AEG, since 1999. The team’s owner, Steve Ballmer, is planning to move the Clippers to a privately financed development anchored by an 18,500-seat arena, in time for the completion of its lease deal at Staples Center in 2024.

The proposed complex is across the street from SoFi Stadium, which will be the home of the NFL’s Rams and Chargers beginning in 2020. It is also less than a mile from the Forum, whose owner, Madison Square Garden Co., is engaged in a bitter legal fight with Ballmer over land close to the proposed arena.

Ballmer is said to be confident construction on the new arena will begin by the middle of 2021.

Image: LA Clippers