Prince William County has scheduled a referendum for March 2 on moving the county seat out of the city of Manassas, setting up a fierce political battle that could change the face of the county.

The proposal for a new courthouse and other county government facilities in Independent Hill, about eight miles south of Manassas and 15 minutes closer to the populous eastern end of the county, is part of a continuing dispute over tax revenues between the county and the city, which became independent in 1975.

A move away from Manassas would place county facilities back in the county and, those who favor the move say, also bring the county tax revenues from businesses that would locate near the courthouse. Since achieving independence at a referendum of the city's voters, Manassas has taxed the facilities that surround the present courthouse, which was built in 1892.

The move is hotly debated, and the Board of County Supervisors has divided, 4 to 3, on a series of votes leading to the special March election.

The ballot will contain four issues: whether to move the county seat and build a $6.4 million courthouse: authorization for a $6.4 million bond issue for the courthouse: authorization for a $4.7 million jail bond issue, and authorization for a $7.2 million bond issue to finance construction of county offices.

The proposed site is a 150-acre tract at the intersection of Rtes. 234 and 619, for which the county has an option to buy for $360,000.

The proposal already has set off several rounds of political maneuvering, and the two sides are planning fund raisers and setting up organizations to publicize their cases.

The cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, the only independent cities in the county, have asked the state legislative delegation to seek passage of a bill allowing city voters to participate in the special election. The state attorney general has issued an opinion that only county residents are eligible to vote.

The supervisors countered with a request that the General Assembly members introduce no such bill.

A group of lawyers whose offices are clustered around the present courthouse also are organizing in opposition to the move. They are considering seeking an injunction to block a vote until the issue of city voting participation is settled.

Manassas last year offered the county a package is said was worth $2.34 million if the county would drop the relocation idea and build the new courthouse in the city. The offer, now withdrawn, included a $2 million cash offer and curbs, gutters, street extensions and fee waivers.

Manassas Mayor Harry Parrish said, "In the long run such a move probably wouldn't hurt us, although we think it is to our advantage to keep the courthouse here. If citizens know the full impact the move would have on the taxpayers I can't help but think they'll vote it down."

Newly elected Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald L. White, a Manassas accountant, said, "based on our consultants report we are not going to get the economic return to justify a move. If the evaluation were being made in private industry the project would be abandoned."

White also has said a courthouse move might trigger petitions by residents in western Prince William for annexation to Manassas.

Outgoing Board Chairman Alice E. Humphries, will be leading support for the move, said Prince William did not want to get in the spot Fairfax County is in."

Fairfax County's court and office complex is in independent Fairfax City. The county has just built a new $5.4 million jail and has approved an $18.7 million bond issue for new court facilities but now finds itself squeezed for office space.

The Fairfax County Board has appointed a commission to study the possibility of moving out of Fairfax City. The town of Reston has offered free land and the county also is considering a central location at U.S. 50 and the Capital Beltway.

Humphries said "Prince William County needs to have its own identifiable seat. It does not now have that. This new complex would have the effect of melding the east and west of the county.

"We're currently operating in 38 buildings - old schools, apartments, houses and condemned buildings we've renovated - and we had to make a decision on court facilities and the jail. The decision was to put them in Prince William County.

"I've been amazed by the number of people who have told me it's time for a move," Humphries said. "It'll be a major battle. Right now, I'd say the outcome is a tossup."