A disagreement over who owns new parkland has pitted the Fairfax County Park Authority against the county government staff, and has placed J. Hamilton Lambert in the position of choosing between two loyalties: his job as county executive and his job as executive director of the Park Authority.

When a developer wants to build something in the county, he often is required to donate a piece of vacant land to the Park Authority to ensure a balance between parks and buildings.

The Park Authority, a 10-member independent panel appointed by the supervisors, takes title to these parcels, known as "proffers," and makes sure they remain as parkland.

But for the past 18 months, that chain has been broken.

Lambert's staff, after receiving the parcels from developers, has refused to give the Park Authority the the titles to roughly 900 acres proffered since 1989.

"I think land offered for park purposes under the proffer system should be placed with the Park Authority for its protection," said Estelle Holley, a Park Authority member from Great Falls. "I think there's a problem."

If the land is not in the Park Authority's name in records filed at the courthouse, the agency has no power to protect it from individuals, governments or private interests that want to develop it.

Holley said her panel gives would-be encroachers a tougher time about putting power lines, roads or sewers on parkland.

"I don't think the county looks at {parkland} in the same way we do," Holley said, referring to the staff. "I suspect it's much easier if the county owns it to do something with it."

Lambert said he has no problem with environmentally sensitive land, such as natural streams, going to the Park Authority. But he said parkland with the potential for multiple uses should be kept in the county's name to preserve options for its use.

"I'm not talking about doing environmental damage," Lambert said. "I want to ensure that the county is in a position to maximize its assets."

William C. Beckner, director of the Park Authority, disagreed.

"I prefer the land be proffered to the Park Authority," Beckner said. "If we take title to it, then we would be doing what we're supposed to be doing: protecting and preserving environmental and cultural resources. That's our mission. J. will give you a different argument."

Asked how he can represent the Park Authority and the county administration in a situation where there is disagreement between the two, Lambert said his county executive role comes first -- "it always has."

Lambert added that he has tried to perform a "balancing act" that allows him to carry out his duties in both roles without any conflict.

Thomas "Bo" White, chairman of the Park Authority, said he would like to explore the possibility of changing the role of the executive director and get the position "better defined."

White said he is unsure whether that would mean the elimination of the position.

The county has offered to hold on to the land but lease it to the Park Authority. It recently offered the Park Authority a 10-year lease on a piece of property; Beckner and his panel rejected the offer.

The conflict started in March 1988, when the County Board of Supervisors voted to have the county hold on to school land if schools weren't using it. The interpretation of the ruling was expanded to include parkland.

The Park Authority has about 15,000 acres in its name, about 10,000 of which are open space without any improvements such as ball fields or playgrounds.

The 10-member authority was reorganized by the Board of Supervisors in 1986, and Lambert was appointed executive director. The authority's powers are granted by the supervisors under a letter of understanding that is renewed every five years.

The Park Authority is responsible for administering the land entrusted to it, including parkland.

Lambert is retiring from the county next month and will relinquish his role on the Park Authority. It is not known whether his interim successor, Deputy County Executive Richard King, or his permanent successor will assume duties as Park Authority executive director.

Beckner said he will meet with Deputy County Executives Anthony Griffin and James P. McDonald to discuss a proposal to submit to the Board of Supervisors. That proposal would clarify the status of parkland and in whose name the land will be filed.