Second injunction to halt Columbia’s Symphony of Lights event denied

Jacob Calvin Meyer, The Baltimore Sun

Another legal attempt to halt the Symphony of Lights in Columbia failed Friday after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held up the Howard County Circuit Court’s decision last month to deny a preliminary injunction.

While the ruling by the appellate court allows the Symphony of Lights to continue, the monthslong lawsuit regarding the popular holiday drive-thru continues.

“At present, [the Columbia Association’s] legal team does intend to continue the appeal and the fight to protect the land we own and maintain for the people of Columbia,” Columbia Association spokesperson Dannika Rynes wrote in an email. “The order has no bearing or impact on the likelihood of [the Columbia Association’s] success in the appeal or in the underlying case in the circuit court.”

Rynes said the association’s legal team is waiting for a hearing date for the lawsuit to be announced.

The lawsuit, filed by the Columbia Association and Inner Arbor Trust in June, attempted to halt this year’s annual event in Columbia following years of disputes surrounding where the event took place, who was allowed to use that space and how that space was to be used. The lawsuit regarding the Symphony of Lights, a holiday lights tour that draws thousands of people to Columbia each December, names the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission and It’s My Amphitheater Inc. as defendants.

Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The Symphony of Lights began on Nov. 25 this year and will continue to run through Jan. 2.

The lawsuit was officially filed June 12, and then the Columbia Association filed a preliminary injunction to halt the event. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ordered the Howard County Circuit Court on Nov. 18 to make its decision by Nov. 25, when the local court denied the injunction.

“The public interest in holding these traditional holiday events that also support the public health at large far outweigh any concern about the possibility of temporarily exceeding the scope of easements provided for in contracts of private parties,” Circuit Court Judge William Tucker wrote in his November opinion.

The Symphony of Lights has taken place in some form in Columbia since 1993 and had a charitable component benefiting Howard County General Hospital for many years.

In 2017, the Columbia Association said it expressed concerns about the environmental impact due to the amount of vehicles. The hospital then said 2018 would be the Symphony of Lights’ final year.

However, it went on in 2019 as a vehicular event without the hospital’s involvement, according to court documents, operating under a permit granted by the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning without the authorization of the Columbia Association.

The legal complaint involves Columbia Association-owned easements rights for the property surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion, called Symphony Woods. The nonprofit Inner Arbor Trust programs community events on the property, while Merriweather Post Pavilion is owned by the county arts commission and is leased and operated by events company It’s My Amphitheater.

The lawsuit says the operation of the Symphony of Lights in 2019 violated previous easement agreements and requests an injunction to prevent the event from occurring this year.

“[The Columbia Association] would like to stress that months prior to this year’s Symphony of Lights, our leadership made concerted steps to avoid litigation, reaching out to the parties involved to come up with a sustainable event — including walking options — that both served the community and respected [the Columbia Association’s] property rights,” Rynes wrote in an email Friday. “Those attempts to collaborate were unsuccessful and often ignored. It became clear that more serious actions had to be taken or the misuse of Symphony Woods Park would continue, if not expand.”

“There are complicated legal questions underlying all the organizational relationships in downtown Columbia,” Kennedy said in November after the Howard County Circuit Court decision. “There is a time and a place for those [legal] questions to be settled and the bigger reality that this has been a really challenging year for everyone, and this is an event that can take place safely amid the [coronavirus] pandemic.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Ana Faguy contributed to this article.