The Columbia Associations motion for preliminary injunction has been denied by Howard County Circuit Court. Symphony of Lights will go on!!
Here is my article broken into several sections. First, is my quick summation of the key takeaways from the Judge's decision. Then are two quick bullets providing my thoughts, and finally is an excerpt from the conclusion of the Judge's decision, and statements from the Columbia Association, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, and County Executive Calvin Ball.
A quick summation of some of the key takeaways from the Judge's opinion:
This a denial of a preliminary injunction only. The court case will continue. By denying the motion for a preliminary injunction, Symphony of Lights can proceed this year as the court continues to hear the case. The purpose of a primarily injunction is to maintain the status quo between parties during the course of litigation. In determining whether to grant the preliminary injunction, the court considers the (1) likelihood that the plaintiff will succeed on its merits, (2) whether greater injury would be done by granting the injunction, (3) whether the plaintiff will suffer irreparable injury unless the injunction is granted, and (4) the public interest. In other words, the plaintiff, has a much higher burden of proving facts and must prevail on all four aforementioned factor, in order for the Court to grant a preliminary injunction.
It was determined during testimony that the light displays would be placed entirely in Merriweather Post Pavilion (no light would be displayed would be on CA property), and that the easements across paved roads and driveways that would be used by patrons would only be for ingress and egress.
CA's property is being used for COVID testing cite during the day. Symphony of Lights event at night does not interfere with the ability for the site to continue as a COVID test during the day - Both can occur.
There is just as much vehicle traffic that occurs for COVID testing as there will be for Symphony of Lights, and there may be more environmental impacts caused by vehicle emissions from vehicles idling for hours waiting for citizens to be tested than would be caused by vehicles driving through the property for the light display event.
Finally, the Court opinion states that it is undisputed that Symphony of Lights raises money for Howard County General Hospital and is in fact, the single largest community event that benefits these critical caregivers in our community.
And below offers my two cents and my opinion on the outcome:
I'm no lawyer, but this seems like a significant win for Merriweather Post Pavilion and a bad loss for CA. The court case can absolutely continue, but from my reading, it appears that the Judge believes that Merriweather Post Pavilion owners and operators are have a right to allow their patrons use the paved roads (for which they have an easement) in order for their guests to access their property for their events.
Over the past months, CA seemed confident in their legal position that they would win, and were wiling to endure the angst of the community upset that CA was attempting to prevent a COVID-safe beloved community tradition from occurring in order to protect their property rights. Instead, this appears to do a significant loss for CA. It has cost them untold amounts in legal fees (which will ultimately be paid the annual assessment paid to CA by Columbia residents) and has resulted in a significant hit to their reputation.
Finally, one suggestion for the event organizers. Now that the event is proceeding this year, I think it would be great if ticket sales more clearly disclosed exactly how much of each sale will be donated to HCGH. Additionally, it would be cool if on top of the default amount that will be donated to HCGH for each ticket sale of $20, an optional additional donation can be added on top of the ticket base price in which 100% would be donated to HCGH.
EXCERPT FROM MEMOANDUM OPINION BY HOWARD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE WILLIAM TUCKER
It is undisputed that Symphony of Lights raises money for the Howard County General Hospital ( "The event is the single largest community event that benefits these critical caregivers in our community."). Additionally, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the funds raised for the benefit of the Howard County General Hospital are vital to the health and welfare of the community at large. Furthermore, the Court finds that the public interest favors stability and consistency. This holiday event has been a staple of the community for twenty-five years. Thousands of patrons attend the event annually and it, by its very nature as a drive-through procession, keeps patrons socially distant and compliant with the current pandemic restrictions. The public interest in holding these traditional holiday events that also support the health at large far outweigh any concern about the possibility of temporarily exceeding the scope of easements provided for in contracts of private parties.
For the reasons articulated above, the Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction shall be Denied.
Statement from the Columbia Association
Columbia Association (CA) wants to genuinely thank the community for their comments and questions about Symphony Woods Park, specifically when it comes to the Symphony of Lights. This has been a trying year for everyone, and we understand how the uncertainty and complexity surrounding this event could add to that frustration.
The organization does not comment publicly about the details of ongoing legal proceedings, and the latest decision from the court certainly does not end this process. It’s important to note, however, that CA is not and has never been opposed to events that utilize our Open Space in a respectful and sustainable way consistent with the CA’s greater mission and initiatives. 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.
CA is excited to work with neighbors to expand on all community traditions, ones that benefit our families, our charitable partners and our precious green space. Still, CA remains focused on our greater mission and overarching initiatives. We look forward to the opportunities the next month, the next year and beyond bring to this community.
Statement from The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission
"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. We look forward to welcoming families from around the region to Merriweather Post Pavilion for a festive respite from these trying times and a chance to experience a holiday tradition that still feels normal."
"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."
County Executive Ball Statement on Symphony of Lights Litigation
ELLICOTT CITY, MD – Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released the following statement in regards to the Circuit Court ruling of a preliminary injunction on the lawsuit between the Columbia Association and Inner Arbor Trust Downtown, Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, and It’s My Amphitheater Inc. Today’s ruling allowed the previously scheduled Howard County General Hospital fundraiser and COVID-19 safe “Symphony of Lights” at Merriweather Post Pavilion to be held this year. The Howard County Government was not involved or partied to in this litigation.
“The Symphony of Lights is wonderful tradition in Downtown Columbia that has continued for 20 years and supported Howard County General Hospital. This year, we’ve cheered and clapped for our healthcare heroes, and this fundraiser will support their valiant efforts to keep our community safe during a devastating pandemic.
If there was ever a year where our community needs a COVID safe activity that evokes holiday cheer and raised much needed funding for our hospital - it is 2020. This season, we have had to miss out on some of our most cherished traditions and with the Symphony of Lights, we can provide a safe way to lift spirits through these difficult times. As we continue to encourage our residents to stay COVID safe, we also must be cognizant of the mental health needs of our residents, and the positive impact that a safe, joyous, community event like Symphony of Lights can provide to their holiday season.
This litigation between Columbia Association and It’s My Amphitheatre, Inc. has been challenging to witness. During a time when we see divisions stretching across our county and communities – I hope all parties involved can find common ground.
We have seen the power of collective action and kindness, especially with the approaching holiday. Let’s move forward together, embrace the spirit of harmony, and enjoy this longstanding tradition. Howard County will continue to RISE and recover from the health, emotional, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward with Symphony of Lights this holiday season will not only support our community heroes but will brighten our hopes for a better and more prosperous 2021.”