The Columbia Association and Inner Arbor Trust have filed a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court in an attempt to halt this year’s annual Symphony of Lights drive-thru event in Columbia.
The lights tour during the holiday season draws thousands of people to Columbia each December. The suit, filed June 12, names the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission and It’s My Amphitheater Inc. as defendants.
The crux of the complaint involves Columbia Association-owned easements rights for the property surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion, called Symphony Woods. The nonprofit Inner Arbor Trust programs community events on the property, while Merriweather Post Pavilion is owned by the county arts commission and is leased and operated by events company It’s My Amphitheater.
There are various easement agreements between the entities to provide parking and access rights to visitors. The lawsuit alleges the operation of the Symphony of Lights in 2019 violated those agreements and requests an injunction to prevent the event from occurring this year.
The CA alleges access to Symphony Woods was blocked by the arts commission and It’s My Amphitheater in 2019 when they put on the Symphony of Lights drive-thru parade unauthorized.
The Symphony of Lights has taken place in some form in Columbia since 1993 and had a charitable component benefiting Howard County General Hospital for many years.
According to Paul Gleichauf, CA interim chief marketing officer, the association expressed concern to Howard General in 2017 about holding the event as a drive-thru, given the environmental impact from vehicles.
“The hospital agreed that 2018 would be the last year in which it would hold a drive-thru [Symphony of Lights] event,” Gleichauf said. “CA informed the hospital that [it] would grant the hospital a license to continue to hold [Symphony of Lights] as a walking event, but the hospital chose not to pursue that alternative.”
However, the Symphony of Lights went on in 2019 as a vehicular event without the hospital’s involvement, according to court documents, operated under a permit granted by the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning without the authorization of the CA.
The suit is being filed now because the CA and Inner Arbor Trust believe a similar plan is in place for 2020, according to court documents.
“While the hospital is not a party in the lawsuit filed by the Columbia Association and Inner Arbor Trust, we believe Symphony of Lights should continue for the benefit of the community and the hospital,” Howard County General Hospital President Steve Snelgrove said in a statement.
“Though we no longer operate the event, Howard County General Hospital does financially benefit from the event. The hospital needs financial support from our community now more than ever, as we combat the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the evolving needs of our patients and caregivers.”
The lawsuit comes at a time when the CA is experiencing financial problems, including freezing gym accounts, not opening its pools this summer and enacting furloughs for its staff. The CA is both a homeowners association that serves more than 100,000 residents and a membership organization with almost 60,000 members. Gleichauf said the suit has nothing to do with financial issues.
“It’s about preserving the Symphony Woods for the benefit of the neighborhood and community,” he said.
The Inner Arbor Trust also hosted its own winter festival and walk-through event, Ice and Fire Festival: A Winter Wonderland, last year in Symphony Woods.
Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, said one of the commission’s roles is protecting Merriweather Post Pavilion’s access rights and keeping traditions alive.
“We will defend our organization and our property from this legal challenge which threatens Merriweather’s ability to provide guests and visitors access to its property and to host events as envisioned by the community in the Downtown Columbia Master Plan of 2010,” Kennedy said in a statement.
“Furthermore, we are disappointed that this challenge was brought in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis when many of the entities involved are facing significant financial challenges,” Kennedy said. “This action is counter to the fundamental spirit of collaboration and compromise that is critical to realizing our shared vision of downtown Columbia as a premier destination for arts, culture and community events.”
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The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission and It’s My Amphitheater have 30 days to respond, according to court documents, giving them until July 13. The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission declined to comment further on the complaint.