Closed meeting of CA Board, Inner Arbor Trust questioned

The Columbia Association Board of Directors met with the representatives from the Inner Arbor Trust Inc. Thursday in what some board members are calling an improperly closed meeting.

“In my opinion, this does not qualify for a closed meeting,” said Alex Hekimian, CA board member from Oakland Mills.

The Inner Arbor Trust, which is in the process of filing for 501(c)(3) status, is a separate entity created by CA Board vote to implement the Inner Arbor Plan -- a new design concept for Symphony Woods. The plan, which was approved by the board on Feb. 14, is to build an arts district on the eastern side of the park that includes Toby's Dinner Theatre, a children's theater, three restaurants, a CA headquarters and a 1,750-space parking garage.

The board voted 5-3 to close Thursday's meeting, citing a provision in the Maryland Homeowner's Association Act that allows the closure of meeting to discuss "pending litigation" or "legal matters," according to CA board chair Andy Stack. 

According to CA General Counsel Sheri Fanaroff, contract negotiations between the two parties relating specifically to the perpetual easement CA plans to grant to the Inner Arbor Trust to develop Symphony Woods was the reason for closing the meeting. 

“That is an agreement we have been working long and hard to negotiate,” Fanaroff said, regarding the easement.

Hekimian said that wasn’t sufficient.

“Since the two parties involved in negotiations are here, it’s not like we are keeping something from the other party,” Hekimian said. “It seems to me that it’s primarily the residents that are left in the dark.”

Board members Brian Dunn, Tom O’Connor, Gregg Schwind, Stack and Suzanne Waller voted in favor of closing the meeting, with Hekimian, Nancy McCord and Russ Swatek voting against. 

Board member Cynthia Coyle, who abstained from voting, said she understood the reason for closing the meeting but was concerned about the “secretive” circumstances surrounding it, because notice of the closed meeting was not publicly announced.

“I’m concerned because the meeting was not put on the agenda for the public,” Coyle said. “I think there is a lot of secrecy involved in this.”

This is not the first time the Inner Arbor has been questioned for lacking transparency. In May, State Delegate Liz Bobo wrote a letter to the CA Board, emphasizing her “deep concern” that the meetings of the Inner Arbor Board of Trustees would not be open to the public.

Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor and plan designer, said the group plans to set up a series of public presentations in the coming months. 

“We’re going to be talking a lot more about the project and who’s working on it this fall,” McCall said.

McCall also said the group plans to apply for 501(c)(3) status in the fall in addition to moving forward with a final development for Phase 1 of the plan, which focuses on building meandering pathways and an outdoor amphitheater in the northern section of the park.

Stack said the board was “concerned” heading into the meeting about the progress of the plan, specifically Phase 1, but that those concerns were alleviated.

Board members and Inner Arbor representatives would not discuss specifics about what was said in the meeting.

The two groups met in the offices of Howard Hughes Corp., which is located in the third floor of the building that also houses CA headquarters. Howard Hughes owns a large stake of land in Columbia, including Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is encircled by Symphony Woods Park. 

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