Columbia Association Seeks Injunction to stop Symphony of Lights

Update: 11/23 at 11:30 PM


Symphony of Lights at Merriweather Post Pavilion is scheduled to begin this Wednesday, November 25, but whether or not the event goes off as scheduled is still yet to be determined. That is because Howard County Circuit Court is deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction that would stop Symphony of Lights before its scheduled start. A hearing on the injunction was heard in Howard County Circuit Court this afternoon (November 23) and will continue tomorrow morning. The Columbia Association originally requested this injunction in June 2020 but the court is hearing the case this week after several twists and turns in the months long legal process. A ruling is expected prior to Symphony of Lights scheduled opening on Wednesday that will determine whether or not the event proceeds as planned.


2020 Entrance to Symphony of Lights - November 23 (photo by me)

If you have driven past Merriweather Post Pavilion at night over the past week, you have surely seen the Pavilion alight with a dazzling display of 300,000 LED lights awaiting the the vehicle procession scheduled to occur between November 25 and January 2. Tickets have been available for purchase on merriweatherlights.com since November 6.


The Columbia Association, together with Inner Arbor Trust, filed a legal compliant in June 2020 against the owner (Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission) and operators (It's My Amphitheater) of Merriweather Post Pavilion seeking an injunction to prevent the 2020 Symphony of Lights drive-through event from moving forward. The compliant alleged that the Columbia holiday tradition violates an easement agreement between these entities and causes environmental damage and raises safety concerns.


Symphony Woods (which is owned by CA) surrounds and entirely land locks Merriweather Post Pavilion. Accordingly, any event held within the grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion requires guests and vehicles to traverse over CA property to get into the venue. Various easements agreements between these entities govern access rights. These agreements have been updated and amended numerous times over the years as the parties and circumstances have changed.


This entrance to this year's event begins at the Merriweather Post Pavilion box office on Dennis Lane (accessed from Merriweather Drive), and exits via the driveway down from the Merriweather Post Pavilion VIP parking area onto Symphony Woods Road. The rest of the procession is contained within Merriweather Post Pavilion.


Ian Kennedy, Executive Director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, owner of Merriweather Post Pavilion, penned an editorial in this morning's Baltimore Sun - A 'Grinch' shuts down Columbia's Symphony of Lights.


On October 20, Howard County Circuit Court ordered that the Inner Arbor Trust and It's My Amphitheater handle their dispute via arbitration. The Inner Arbor Trust and It's My Amphitheater are parties to an agreement that contains a clause requiring arbitration of any disputes, claims, or controversies. Accordingly, the judge ruled that these parties handle this matter by arbitration. While CA is not subject to this agreement and therefore are not compelled to participate in arbitration, the judge issued a stay, or temporary pause, against CA's claims against IMA and the DCACC pending the results of arbitration between IMA and the Inner Arbor Trust since arbitration is likely to settle the claim. CA appealed that decision on October 23.


(New paragraph added 11/23 at 11:30 PM) Last week, on November 18, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the Circuit Court decision and ordered the Circuit Court to make a decision on a preliminary injunction by November 25. The Circuit Court began the hearing on the preliminary injunction today (11/23) and will continue tomorrow (11/24). This explains the timing of this case being heard in the days leading up to the scheduled start of the event. The case this week is to decide on whether or not to grant a preliminary injunction. If a preliminary injunction is granted, the event would need to stop pending further legal action. After a decision is rendered on the preliminary injunction, the case will continue as to whether or not a permanent injunction should be granted, which would impact current and future years.


CA's Manager of Media Relations and Communications Dannika Rynes has warned that "This ruling does not expressly or implicitly authorize the defendants to trespass on or use CA property for this year's Symphony of Lights. Doing so would violate CA's property rights, as well as the recorded deeds and easements governing that land." CA has previously issued an FAQ document answering commonly asked questions about their action.


Despite this warning, event organizers have began ticket sales, set up the lights, and have proceeded with their plans to host the festival. CA has not authorized or agreed to the event's occurrence.


Through 2018, the annual event has been hosted by Howard County General Hospital under a license granted to the Hospital by CA. In 2019, the drive-through event was instead hosted by Event Consulting & Management, a for-profit 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. While not hosted by the Hospital, $75,000 of proceeds from the 2019 were donated to HCGH. A portion of the 2020 proceeds are also planned to be donated to HCGH.


It cannot be emphasized enough that this is a long complex case with a long history behind it. If you search the case record (Case Number: C13CV20000479) on the Circuit Court case lookup, you will see a list a mile long of all the motions, filings, exhibits, supporting documents and comments. As a blogger, I've done my best to present to it as fairly as I could and share all the info I could gather, but no doubt there is much much more to the case.