CA continues to seek an injunction in the never-ending Symphony of Lights dispute
UPDATE: 12/18/20: DENIED! Symphony of Lights goes on! The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has denied the Columbia Association's request for an injunction seeking an immediate stop to this year's ongoing Symphony of Lights drive-through event. This is the second time the Columbia Association has requested and been denied a court order seeking an end to the annual winter event on the grounds that it infringes no their property rights.
Below is the rest of the original 12/9 article on CA's injunction request.
Just when it appeared that the Symphony of Lights legal drama was over now that the drive-through holiday event is ongoing nightly, it's not. The saga continues. The Columbia Association (CA) is continuing its legal pursuit of an injunction that, if granted, would put an immediate stop to this year's event. After being denied its request for injunction by the Howard County Circuit Court on November 25, CA filed a second motion for injunction pending appeal with Maryland's Court of Special Appeals on December 8 requesting that the higher court overturn the decision of the Circuit Court and put an immediate stop to this year's event. CA has requested that the Court of Special Appeals grant this motion on or before Friday December 18, 2020 while arguing that the Circuit Court refused to consider the merits of a motion for preliminary injunction, failed to provide parties a full proceeding, and adopted an erroneous conclusion. If the injunction is granted by the Court of Special Appeals, Symphony of Lights (which has been ongoing nightly since November 25), would have to immediately halt operating prior to its scheduled end date of January 2.
As regular readers know, I've covered this story in great depth over the past 6 months. For a recap of all the twists and turns in the lengthy legal dispute, please read my 11/23 article (and if you are so inclined, you can go further down the rabbit hole following the links in that article to all previous reports). To date, I have gone to great efforts to accurately present the perspective of all parties to this complex and controversary dispute and I have received separate expressions of gratitude from each side for my fairness and effort in informing the community. And while I've done my best to remain neutral thus far and have largely refrained from offering my opinion on this matter, I find that the continued persistence of CA to pursue this injunction needs to be called out.
Judge William Tucker of Howard County Circuit Court issued a stinging opinion against CA denying CA's preliminary injunction request. The County Executive celebrated the decision in a statement describing Symphony of Lights as a wonderful tradition supporting the Howard County General Hospital, and urging all parties involved to find common ground while admitting that the litigation has been challenging to witness. And the community reaction has been one that is strongly in support of the event based on social media reactions and the never-ending line of cars I have witnessed awaiting entry into Merriweather Post Pavilion each night that the event has been open. As CE Ball included in his statement, "If there was ever a year where our community needs a COVID safe activity that evokes holiday cheer and raises much needed funding for our hospital - it is 2020."
The Columbia Association is funded primarily by the annual assessment charged to property owners - both residential and commercial. The average annual assessment paid to CA by resident households is $1,030. So, this is not CA's money they are using to continue to pursue this lawsuit - it's ours! The CA Board of Directors has a duty to us citizens that are financing their operations, and they are failing us. Through October 31, 2020; CA has already incurred $179,000 in legal fees (an increase of 86% compared to last year, see page 109), and this doesn't include all the expenses related to the hearings, motions, and drafting of lengthy legal documents that have occurred so far in November and December.
Meanwhile, CA is in a dire financial position. CA has laid off over 80% of their staff, kept outdoor pools closed all of last summer due to funding shortages, and may be forced to permanently close tot lots, pools, neighborhood centers, and reduce funding to village associations in the future. Yet, sports and fitness clubs remain in operation even while they bleed money. CA Board member Renee DeBois notes on her blog The River Hill Village Voice, that the Sports and Fitness division of CA will incur actual and projected losses for FY 2017 through FY 2021 of $41.7 million, which is more than the projected $40 million residential and commercial assessment revenue combined for FY 2021. Our assessments are subsidizing gym memberships and paying CA's attorneys in their (thus far) unsuccessful attempts to shut down a beloved COVID-safe tradition that raises funds for our Hospital and health-care workers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, it's TBD on whether all outdoor pools will be able to open next summer.
It also must be noted that the denial of the preliminary injunction by the Circuit Court does not end the legal dispute. It simply allowed this year's event to move forward while the court case continues, and CA has already indicated they will continue to pursue this legal process. While I personally would prefer these parties to settle their difference outside of court and work together for the betterment of arts and culture in Columbia, from a pure legal standpoint, CA can abandon their pursuit of this injunction without forfeiting their legal argument that Symphony of Lights violates their property rights. The 2020 Symphony of Lights has already been ongoing for two weeks, and by the time the Special Appeals Court rules, the event will already be more than halfway over. So, why spend our money trying to stop an event that is already ongoing? What damages, if any, is CA attempting to prevent from happening now?
The crux of CA's complaint involves the easements rights across Symphony Woods, which surrounds and entirely landlocks Merriweather Post Pavilion, so vehicles must travel across these easements to access Symphony of Lights. For those of you who have already enjoyed this year's event, the only time you travel across these easements is on the paved road that you drive on when first entering the lightshow and the paved driveway you travel down as you exit the event. Both paved surfaces. The rest of the event is contained entirely within Merriweather Post Pavilion. I fail to see how utilizing these roadways inflicts the environmental degradation to Symphony Woods claimed by CA.
I hate to pile on CA, who is already being vilified as The Grinch for pursuing this unpopular legal action, but I'm hard-pressed to believe that, at this point, the CA Board's tenacious pursuit to shut down this year's Symphony of Lights is motivated by anything other than personal animosities and old grudges. Let the lights shine on.