The scene had been rerun hundreds of times for the Fairfax County Planning Commission, with all the usual characters and the same worn script.

On one side was the applicant, asking that a 216-acre, $395 million project be approved, seeking more office space, looking for waivers on buffers between roads and buildings, arguing that proposed road improvements were sufficient.

On the other side were the opponents, asking that the case be deferred, arguing that there were too many unresolved issues, seeking additional traffic studies and more concessions.

But there was one strange and controversial twist in this case. The applicant was the county and developers were cast in the part usually reserved for hand-wringing: obstructionist residents.

The catalyst for these unlikely role reversals is the proposed Fairfax County Government Center, which has raised a host of issues for Fairfax that governments throughout the country are facing as they try to cut costs or generate income through "privatization."

After more than 10 years of debate and delay, dozens of public hearings and a variety of flip-flops on the issue, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled on Aug. 3 to decide whether to enter into a joint venture with a private developer for the construction of a new government center near I-66 and Rte. 50. The board will hold a public hearing on the matter today.

The proposal calls for the developer, The Charles E. Smith

Cos./The Artery Organization Partnership, to build a five-story, $83.4 million government center in exchange for 116 acres of adjoining land, $24.6 million cash and $16.6 million in other forms of compensation. The land, purchased by the county for $4.1 million in 1979, is worth about $42 million today.

Critics of the proposal have charged that the county government is giving a "sweetheart deal" to Smith/Artery and not getting its money's worth out of the partnership. The county should instead put the issue to the voters and finance the center through a bond referendum, this argument goes.

Others, mostly developers, accuse the county of approving questionable land use decisions in the case.

"This is the county that says, 'Give us control and we'll manage growth,' " said a planner for a local developer. "They're being more greedy and more grasping in this activity than anyone I've seen in Fairfax County in 15 years."

County officials say they are not giving preferential treatment to their own project, adding that the proposal is an extremely good deal because the county will not go into long-term debt or use up its bonding authority, which officials want to reserve for roads and schools.

In addition, according to Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert, there is a "dynamite" provision that 66 of Smith/Artery's 116 acres, including all improvements such as office buildings and a hotel, will be given back to the county in 75 years, no strings attached.

The Urban Land Institute, citing the proposed Fairfax government center as an example, said in its Development Trends 1987 magazine that public-private partnerships "may be the wave of the future" but that they present perplexing questions.

"Critics ask if a city {or county} can retain its objectivity as the entity that regulates a project's development when it is also a partner in the deal. Can it be both referee and quarterback?" the magazine asked. "Other critics worry that the city {or county} may be giving too much away in its efforts to secure a private partner, and that it may be receiving less than a maximum return on its investment."

The current county headquarters is the 120,000-square-foot, 12-story Massey Building in Fairfax City, which opened in 1969. There were about 2,300 full-time county employes then, compared with about 8,700 today. Some county staff members have wanted to move since they walked through the door; they complain about long waits for elevators, cramped space, insufficient parking and clogged roads leading to the building on Chain Bridge Road.

Because of the growing work force, the county spends about $5.4 million annually to rent space in privately owned buildings. In addition, numerous businesses have located in Fairfax City -- an independent jurisdiction -- to be near the Massey Building, taking away tax revenue from the county.

Plans for the new government center, to be just south of Fair Oaks Mall and west of Fairfax City, call for a massive horseshoe-shaped complex on 100 acres surrounded by numerous high-rise offices, ponds and town houses.

Construction would be divided into two phases. The first -- to be financed under the arrangement with Smith/Artery and to be completed by January 1991 -- envisions a 633,643-square-foot building (five times the size of the Massey Building) with an atrium, skylights, walkways and a 150-foot obelisk in front.

Details for the second phase, under which the building would expand to 958,000 square feet, have not been worked out.

Surrounding the site would be three other parcels of land with five 10-story office buildings, a 250-room hotel and 596 town houses and apartments.

In recent years, the Board of Supervisors twice has refused to put financing for a new government center to a bond referendum, claiming that voters did not want a "monument to bureaucracy" or "an edifice complex."

Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who initially opposed the project, saying it would be "an abuse of our bonding capacity," now is one of its staunchest supporters.

"This thing has been going on for 10 years, and now the basic question is: Does it make sense to take a $4.1 million investment and turn it into a $83 million government center?" Herrity said.

Some people say that the county should finance and build the government center itself. They argue that when the project is completed, the adjoining land would be worth significantly more than the current $42 million estimate being used to work out the financial partnership with Smith/Artery.

Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale), for years a vocal opponent of a new government center, said she will propose to the board that it scrap the partnership and finance a complex through bonds because "it's a better deal for the taxpayers."

In addition, the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations has issued a report on the government center that says, "There is a possibility of saving as much as $135.8 million" by discarding the joint venture in favor of bonds.

Some local developers wonder whether the county can make impartial land use decisions on its own project. They say -- in what many see as an amusing irony -- that the county is ramming the project through while trampling on property owners' rights and ignoring potential traffic problems.

"There's a feeling out there that the rules are getting bent a little bit for this deal," said Michael J. Giguere, an attorney for Sequoia Building Corp., which is developing 100 acres north of the government center complex.

Among the complaints: The Planning Commission recommended to the Board of Supervisors that it approve a higher density on one 33-acre government center tract than called for in the county's comprehensive plan.

The county staff said the increase is minor and does not affect the overall density of the 216-acre project, which is in conformance with the comprehensive plan.

The area land use plan calls for a 2-to-1 mix of commercial to residential uses, but the county staff and Smith/Artery deducted the government center in calculating how many housing units would be needed to reach that ratio. If the center were included, about 85 housing units would have to be added to the existing plan.

"They {the county} have been sanctimonious about having homes near offices, and it's a good principle," said a local developer who asked not to be identified. "But when it doesn't meet their own economic strategies, they throw the principle out the window."

County staff members said that, in arriving at the number of residential units needed for the complex, they included a 10-story hotel in the residential category.

Developers, principally those with Sequoia, are concerned that the county has not done adequate studies about the potential traffic generated by the center, and that consequently not enough road improvements have been planned. Developers are concerned that, if traffic is worse than the county government expects, surrounding developments will be forced to pay for improvements.

In addition, the county has planned for one of the government center access roads to extend through the back yards of four houses, which private developers say they never would have been allowed to do.