Columbia Association files legal action to shut down Symphony of Lights Vehicle Parade

Updated 11:15 AM: 7/2/2020 with a statement from the Columbia Association. See bottom of article. Added "vehicle parade" to the title.

Updated 8 AM: 7/8/2020 with a statement from the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission.


On June 12, The Columbia Association ("CA"), together with Inner Arbor Trust, filed a legal compliant in Howard County Circuit Court (Case No. C-13-CV-20-000479) against the owner and operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion ("MPP") to prevent the 2020 Symphony of Lights drive-through event from moving forward. The compliant alleges that the Columbia holiday tradition violates an easement agreement between these entities and requests an injunction that would prevent the event from occurring at MPP later this year. CA, financed primarily through assessments paid by Columbia homeowners, is pursuing this legal action as it faces significant cash flow and liquidity problems that have prevented CA from being able to open their pools this summer.


The annual winter festival of lights draws 100,000 visitors each season to drive through a dazzling visual art show built up with 300,000 LED lights stretching over a mile with over sized animated and stationary holiday light creations. The event directly benefits Howard County General Hospital and it is estimated that the event has raised $8 million for the hospital over its 25 year history.


Symphony Woods is owned by CA. The land surrounds and entirely land locks Merriweather Post Pavilion. MPP is owned by The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission ("DCACC") and is operated by It's My Amphitheater, Inc. ("IMA"). Various easements and agreements exist between these entities to provide parking and access rights. These agreements have been updated and amended numerous times over the years as the parties and circumstances have changed. The legal action asserts that the Symphony of Lights parade exceeds the scope of the access and parking easement agreements and is seeking an order that would prevent the DCACC and IMA from hosting the drive-through holiday light parade this year.


In 2016, the ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion was transferred from Howard Hughes Corporation to the DCACC. The DCACC is a not-for-profit community organization dedicated to enhancing the vibrancy of downtown Columbia by bringing arts and cultural events to MPP such as Howard County Public School theater productions, the Soulful Symphony Orchestra, and Merriweather movie nights. IMA operates Merriweather Post Pavilion and is in charge of producing and promoting the major concerts and performances at MPP.


In 2013, CA approved a plan establishing a non-profit organization, The Inner Arbor Trust ("The Trust"), to carry out improvements to Symphony Woods, including the construction of the Chrysalis in 2017, preserve the space for public use, and to operate community programming. CA granted The Trust a perpetual easement for specific uses of Symphony Woods. The Trust has organized festivals, concerts, children performances and events such as the Chrysalis Kids series, and other programming in Symphony Woods. It has also made the space available for use by other local organizations.


Up until last year, Symphony of Lights was hosted by Howard County General Hospital. CA has granted Howard County General Hospital a license to host these events in Symphony Woods each year. However, citing concerns about safety, the downtown development of Merriweather, and the environmental impact that the event has on Symphony Woods, 2018 was the last year that this license was issued. CA prefers that Symphony of Lights change to a walk through only event, and has made this position clear over the years.


In 2019, the drive-through event was hosted by Event Consulting & Management, a Columbia company made up of many of the same people who had been organizing Symphony of Lights for years, without the authorization or approval of CA. Instead, the event operated under a permit granted by the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. A portion of the proceeds still benefited Howard County General Hospital and the event also helped support the DCACC.


The route for the car procession previously traveled on the land now occupied by much of the new development around Merriweather, so over the years, changes to the route have been made. Beginning in 2018, the car parade route traveled through Merriweather Post Pavilion and the parking lots and access roads that are part of the easement agreements. The recently constructed pedestrian pathways in Symphony Woods near the Chrysalis are not designed for heavy vehicle traffic and are not used for the car procession. Concurrently, for the first time, The Inner Arbor Trust hosted an unaffiliated winter festival and walk-through event of their own, titled Ice and Fire, in Symphony Woods. The Inner Arbor Trust lost their bid to use the Symphony of Lights LED displays, owned by the Hospital, in this event.


Symphony of Lights is a longstanding Columbia tradition. From a public health standpoint, a car procession seems like an ideal event to be held during the coronavirus crisis. Furthermore, this event helps support our local hospital, which certainly has significant need right now. It's a shame that these entities, all of which share a similar mission of enhancing quality of life for people in Columbia, are unable to come to a mutually acceptable agreement that allows for this great event to continue (in some form or another) instead of resorting to legal action and incurring significant legal fees that will ultimately be paid using the annual fees charged to property owners in Columbia.



7/2: Update with answers to my questions from Paul Gleichauf, Interim Chief Marketing Officer of the Columbia Association:


The Merriweather Post Question #1: How much has CA spent on legal fees related to this action to date?  How much is projected/budgeted for legal fees throughout the rest of the fiscal year?

CA’s overall budget for legal fees is reflected in the CA budget, which can be found here. We do not publish legal fees broken down by specific matter. 

The Merriweather Post Question #2: Is CA's motive for the lawsuit to completely shut down Symphony of Lights, or is CA trying to gain control of the event so CA and the Inner Arbor Trust can put it on themselves?  

When CA negotiated the license agreement with Howard County General Hospital (HCGH) for the 2018 Symphony of Lights (SOL), the Hospital agreed that would be the last year for a drive-through event. However, in fall 2019, CA was informed that IMA, the operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion (MPP), intended to sponsor and operate the SOL as a drive-through event in winter 2019. It was CA’s understanding that the event would be constrained to the MPP property owned by the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (DCACC) and operated by IMA.  In fact, the event exceeded the uses allowed by the easement agreements between DCACC and CA and extended onto CA property outside of the existing easements. CA attempted to pursue discussions with IMA, the Inner Arbor Trust (IAT) and DCACC from January into April of this year in an effort to resolve these issues. Unfortunately, IMA refused to participate in that effort or negotiate any amicable resolution, leaving CA and the Trust with no recourse but to file suit. 

The Merriweather Post Question #3: Why is this action being pursued now given the longstanding history of granting a license so that Symphony of Lights can continue supporting Howard County General? 

HCGH previously agreed with CA that 2018 would be the last year it would hold the SOL drive-through event. The 2019 SOL was not sponsored or operated by the Hospital and was not a charitable event to benefit the Hospital. Instead, it was sponsored and operated by IMA as a for-profit income-producing event for IMA. IMA may have made a donation to the Hospital, but we do not know the actual arrangement, if any, or the amount of any possible donation. If an SOL type of event is to be held in future that might require use of CA property, it would have to be a walk-through event rather than a parade of slow-moving and idling vehicles negatively impacting the Symphony Woods environment to the detriment of the neighborhood and the entire community. The event also would require a license agreement with CA, in which the operator of the event would be required to repair any damage done to Symphony Woods, so that CA funds would not have to be expended for such work.

Update: 7/8 at 8 AM with a statement from Ian Kennedy, Executive Director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.


As owners of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission recognizes its essential role as stewards of this cherished community institution, a role that at times involves protecting the venue's access rights and helping facilitate its use for community events and traditions. 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.
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. 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.

Correction (5 PM; 6/30): An earlier version of this post identified the Hops & Harvest Festival as an event that is organized by the Inner Arbor Trust. Symphony Woods was licensed from from Trust for this event in 2019. Outside of that, and some cross promotion, the Trust is otherwise unaffiliated with this event.

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