Prince William this week told James J. Wilson that it would be "impossible" to approve his family's Nokesville racetrack proposal before a five-year referendum expires, prompting the Middleburg businessman to threaten to sue the county.

"Well, obviously they're playing the game of depriving us of our rights under the referendum, and we'll have to go to court," Wilson said. "If you've got an uncomfortable decision to make, the easiest thing is to postpone it."

In its quest to establish a "European style" grass racetrack in Prince William County, the Wilson family dropped plans late last week for a location north of Haymarket that it had been pursuing since July and instead proposed a site in Nokesville near Route 28.

But in a letter Monday to attorney Mike Vanderpool, who is representing the Wilson group, county Planning Director Rick Lawson wrote that Prince William will not be able to issue a final decision on the site until after the referendum expires Nov. 30. Although Lawson tentatively scheduled a Planning Commission public hearing for Oct. 20, he added that "it can be reaffirmed that the Board of County Supervisor's public hearing would not take place prior to January 2000."

But the racetrack might not be a dead deal. Although the Virginia Racing Commission usually requires local government approval before it issues licenses, the rule is not hard and fast, said commission Chairwoman Robin Williams. The commission must issue any license by Nov. 30, when the 1994 county referendum allowing parimutuel wagering expires.

"It seems to me that we could make the license conditional on receiving the local approval," Williams said, noting that the commission as a whole would need to agree to such a decision. "It certainly makes things more difficult for the Wilson group, but it is probably not an insurmountable obstacle."

Through Equus Gaming Co. and Virginia Turf Club Inc., the Wilson family withdrew an application Friday for a racetrack at the northern end of the county in favor of a 220-acre site at Fauquier Drive and Reid Lane near the Fauquier County line. The second application for a special-use permit had been submitted to the county earlier last week.

In addition to a different location, the Nokesville proposal offered fewer hours of simulcast wagering in a clear bid to garner more county support. Simulcast wagering, in which customers can bet on races from around the world, has been a lightning rod for criticism for both the Wilson group and for Colonial Downs Inc., which has applied to open a track in Dumfries. Simulcast wagering would provide the bulk of revenue for both operations, which propose live racing only on a limited basis.

Since last weekend, the Wilson family also has begun publicity efforts at a booth at the Prince William County Fair to tout the benefits of its proposal and differentiate it from that of Colonial Downs's.

The Colonial Downs track would offer about 20 days of live racing per year and would be open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

The Wilsons' Nokesville proposal would offer almost 100 days of live racing a year and would be open six days a week, from noon to 8 p.m. The Wilsons' original Haymarket site, meanwhile, would have been open 11 hours a day, six days a week.

"That was a concern of the supervisors," said Virginia Turf Club spokesman Brian Wilson. "We made [the changes] basically to agree with more of what they wanted--less of the simulcast and more of the live racing."

That might not be enough. In addition to the time factor, the Board of County Supervisors has adopted a self-imposed "lame duck" voting moratorium. From Election Day on Nov. 2 through Jan. 1, when the new board members take office, supervisors cannot vote on land-use matters.

"The board felt it wasn't appropriate to have essentially a lame duck board voting on important land-use matters during November and December," said county spokeswoman Kathy Bentz.

With a Planning Commission meeting in late October, the issue could not get to the board before the moratorium takes effect. And moving the Planning Commission vote up would be difficult because of the county's lengthy commercial review process.

The process, which requires the work of several county agencies, paperwork processing and two-week windows to advertise for public hearings, averages 102 days from application to site plan approval. The Wilson group's second application was filed last Wednesday.

Prince William does expedite the review processes for targeted industries and on a case-by-case basis. Although Lawson could not say whether the track's review process might be expedited, he said, "even for an expedited review, this project is running out of time."

"There are a lot of statutory deadlines, advertising dates and processing dates that make it problematic. . . . I'm not optimistic at all," he said.

Vanderpool could not be reached for comment yesterday, but James J. Wilson said he would not accept the board's voting moratorium and review process logistics as real obstacles.

"They can claim that, but this is August and you've got September, October and November. You've got three months," he said. "Government can't take a vacation because it's convenient politically."

Wilson touted his "first-class" facility as an economically beneficial project for the horse industry in Prince William, as well as a means to preserve the rural character of the county's western end.

"You have a trade-off here," Wilson said. "Do [residents] want to try to keep those lands as open space in the character of Northern Virginia or do they want it to be developed into housing?"

The Wilson group said it abandoned the Haymarket location because it was not flat enough and would require too much land grading. The group said public opposition from several homeowner groups in the area figured only a little in its decision.

This would not be the first racetrack for Wilson. Equus, a publicly held company of which Wilson is chairman, owns a track in Puerto Rico. Equus also manages and partly owns a track in Colombia and manages two other tracks in the Dominican Republic and Panama.

Mary Pat Wilson, executive director of Virginia Turf Club, said the family began seriously considering establishing a track in Northern Virginia only last winter in response to the publicized financial difficulties of Colonial Downs, which owns the state's only other racetrack, in New Kent County.

Financially, however, Equus has its own problems. Equus announced its second-quarter earnings Monday for the period that ended June 30. It posted a loss of $490,000 on revenue of $16.7 million, compared with a loss of $942,000 on revenue of $16.1 million in the same period last year. For the six months ended June 30, Equus earned $90,000 on revenue of $35.7 million, compared with a loss of $1.2 million on revenue of $33.5 million in the same period a year ago.

"We weren't planning to do anything," Mary Pat Wilson said, "and then when the track in Richmond--Colonial Downs--wasn't doing well and we felt there was an opportunity for us to help out. . . . We felt like, well, what the heck, we might as well try."