Toby's Dinner Theatre, a pillar of Columbia's cultural life for more than 26 years, is planning to open a second theater, in Baltimore, next spring.

Toby's Baltimore will be located in a remodeled Best Western Hotel and Conference Center in the city's Canton neighborhood. The hotel once housed a dinner theater, but it had been closed for about a decade when hotel management approached Toby's founder Toby Orenstein about bringing it back to life, said Nancy Michel, director of marketing for Toby's.

The renovated theater, which will provide tiered seating for 400 and a proscenium-style stage, is scheduled to open March 10 with a production of Walt Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That production recently completed a highly successful run in Columbia, and some of its lead actors and actresses are expected to star in the show in Baltimore. But for future productions, Orenstein hopes to tap into Baltimore's talent pool.

Council Seeks Formal Opinion

Apparently, one piece of advice from the Maryland attorney general about the Columbia Council isn't enough. The council has decided to ask the attorney general's office to address the matter of the council's proposed dissolution a few weeks after the office wrote a letter on the very topic.

Council members, who are elected from Columbia's 10 villages, also sit as the board of directors of the large homeowner's association that governs Columbia, setting the lien rate on Columbia property and providing services and amenities. Several members have become convinced that the panel can govern democratically as just the board of directors and end the confusing practice of sitting as both a council and a board.

A recent letter from the attorney general's office to Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) seemed to support that view, but council member Barbara Russell was unconvinced. She noted that the letter was not a formal opinion, and she proposed that the council obtain one before it approves a resolution that calls for the council's disbanding.

Council member Tom O'Connor (Dorsey's Search) questioned whether Russell was delaying action on the board's disbanding.

"It has to do with doing the right thing," she answered. The council approved her motion on a 5 to 3 vote.

Competing Plans for Blandair

Blandair, the 300-acre historic property in the middle of Columbia, has a way of stirring people to try to chart its destiny.

A Columbia architect is challenging the county's plans for a regional park at Blandair even as the county is about to begin restoration of the property's 19th-century manor house and outbuildings this fall. The crusade of Robert J. Moon in some ways echoes the endeavors of Byron C. Hall, a longtime friend of Blandair former owner Elizabeth C. Smith's. After Smith died in 1997, the county purchased the property along Route 175 from her heirs, but Hall filed suit, saying Smith intended that a nonprofit foundation control the estate for open space and low-impact uses. Hall lost the suit.

Moon is e-mailing friends and talking to local officials about replacing the county's regional park concept with "Thunder Hill Park," an oasis that would feature restored woodlands and grasslands and include community gardens, greenhouses and walking trails but that would exclude the athletic fields that are part of the county's plan. Moon's nonprofit Thunder Hill Park Alliance obtained a $10,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation to have landscape architect Herb Schaal prepare drawings.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, said Moon served on the advisory committee that held public hearings and devised Blandair's master plan in 2003. The committee endorsed Moon's idea for a children's garden and set aside three acres for it and 18 acres for athletic fields. About 150 acres of the Blandair estate are designated as natural areas, Arthur said.

"Our job is try to meet the public need, and we have gone through the process," Arthur said.