This year’s Symphony of Lights drive-thru event will go forward after a court ruled Wednesday against a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the event.
While the ruling clears the way for Wednesday’s start to the Columbia holiday event, the monthslong lawsuit among the parties continues.
In June, the Columbia Association and Inner Arbor Trust filed a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court in an attempt to halt this year’s annual event in Columbia, after years of disputes surrounding where the event took place, who was allowed to use that space and how that space was to be used.
“The public interest in holding these traditional holiday events that also support the public health at large far outweigh any concern about the possibility of temporarily exceeding the scope of easements provided for in contracts of private parties,” Circuit Court Judge William Tucker wrote in his opinion.
Following the ruling, the CA put out a statement emphasizing that the organization was never opposed to the event itself, but how the event was put on.
“We expect anyone using the land to value it as much as we all do, and we remain committed to ensuring that all of Columbia’s Open Space is used and regarded appropriately,” the CA statement said.
The lights tour during the holiday season draws thousands of people to Columbia each December. The suit, which names the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, Inner Arbor Trust and It’s My Amphitheater Inc. as defendants, was originally filed June 12 and has continued litigation into November. The CA filed a preliminary injunction to halt the event, and the Court of Special Appeals ordered the Circuit Court on Nov. 18 to make a preliminary injunction decision by this Wednesday, the start date of the event.
Symphony of Lights is scheduled to start Wednesday and continue until Jan. 2. Tickets have been on sale and the lights are set up for the annual event.
“We are pleased that Downtown Columbia’s long-running holiday tradition — Symphony of Lights — will not be stopped by COVID-19 or a lawsuit following today’s ruling in Howard County Circuit Court,” Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, said in a statement. “While we are happy with today’s ruling, the lawsuit attempting to infringe our rights to access Merriweather Post Pavilion is still pending. We will defend these rights to ensure that concerts, graduations, movie nights, and all other Merriweather events can proceed without the arbitrary intervention of the surrounding property owner.
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.
“CA filed its pleadings back in June seeking a declaratory judgment, as well as permanent and preliminary injunctive relief related to the violation of CA’s property rights and the blatant misuse of Symphony Woods,” Dannika Rynes, a CA spokesperson, wrote in an email.
“This specifically referred to the drives and walkways through the park, which are subject to certain express easement agreements that do not permit this type of event. Neither the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, nor It’s My Amphitheater Inc. has filed an answer to the pleadings at this point. Any decision [on Wednesday] will not end this litigation. It is also subject to immediate appeal.”
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.
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.
“In the past, CA’s involvement has only been extended to granting easements to allow for limited access onto specific parts of CA’s property. However, the property has been misused on multiple occasions,” Rynes said. “Consequently, the event has impeded CA and its guests from accessing Symphony Woods and its amenities for as many as six weeks during the holiday season. Leading up to the lawsuit, attempts to collaborate with the current operators and create a more sustainable event on Symphony Woods Park land were unsuccessful.”
The CA said it expressed concerns in 2017 about the environmental impact of vehicles and the hospital said 2018 would be the last year of a drive-thru event.
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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 2020 lawsuit was filed preemptively because CA believed It’s My Amphitheater Inc. to have a similar plan in place for 2020, according to court documents.
“Any attempt to use any CA open space or property for that purpose without proper licensing and permission will be seen as a direct infringement of CA’s property rights,” Rynes said in a statement.
Kennedy said that while legal questions like this one are important, the circumstances surrounding the effects of COVID-19 supersede that.
“There are complicated legal questions underlying all the organizational relationships in downtown Columbia,” Kennedy said. “There is a time and a place for those [legal] questions to be settled and the bigger reality that this has been a really challenging year for everyone, and this is an event that can take place safely amid the pandemic.”
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball agreed with Kennedy’s sentiment Wednesday after the ruling, saying that this year in particular there is a need for events like Symphony of Lights to go on.
“This litigation between Columbia Association and It’s My Amphitheater, Inc. has been challenging to witness,” Ball said in a statement. “During a time when we see divisions stretching across our county and communities — I hope all parties involved can find common ground.”
A previous version of this story conflated the impending lawsuit with a preliminary injunction. Though the injunction was decided Wednesday, the lawsuit will continue past Wednesday. Also that version also incorrectly referred to It’s My Amphitheater Inc. as Inner Arbor Trust.