It has been 12 years since the federal government seized 542 acres of land next to the Manassas National Battlefield Park that was slated for a shopping mall. The historic site of the Second Battle of Manassas was preserved as parkland. Preservationists won a victory. The developers of the would-be mall and other landowners were handed $118 million by the government.

But Prince William County, which had won a series of concessions from the developer for rezoning the land for a shopping mall, has not been paid a cent.

The county has fought for a decade for the millions of dollars it believes it is due from the federal government. The county's claim has bounced back and forth between federal appeals courts. Now, on the eve of yet another trial in Prince William's longest-running court battle, the county has proposed a settlement to the government: Give the county $5 million, and it will use the money to further the National Park Service's goal of historic preservation.

"We're willing to make a commitment to do something that the Department of the Interior [which oversees the Park Service] has talked about as positive," County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak said. "This offers a positive way to resolve the matter without a lot of money from the feds."

In making its case in a recent letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Attorney General Janet Reno, the county listed Prince William's efforts to protect open space and boost historic preservation. Those include setting aside the county's western end as a rural belt in the slow-growth plan passed by the Board of County Supervisors in 1998, acquiring property to restore a 20-acre area in Brentsville where the county courthouse stood in the 19th century and restoring two historic homes.

With a $5 million check from the federal government, the county said, it could restore the Ben Lomond Manor House outside Manassas, which dates to 1827, the Brentsville courthouse and the house off Route 15 known as Mount Atlas, dating to 1775. In addition, Prince William could acquire Rippon Lodge in Woodbridge, the oldest Colonial house left standing on the Potomac River, which is for sale.

"We'd really be committing the county to spending a lot more money on preservation in the future, since the projects are ongoing," Pandak said.

Christine Romano, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on Prince William's settlement offer, saying the matter is in litigation.

A resolution would bring to a close an emotional dispute that began in 1988 with an alliance of preservationists and historians who opposed the William Center shopping complex proposed by Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel.

Led by activist Annie Snyder, the opponents persuaded Congress to take Hazel's land and annex it to the national park where Gen. Robert E. Lee commanded Confederate forces during the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862.

Hazel and other landowners were paid $118 million in 1990 for the seizure, called a "legislative taking." The county's sewer authority also received $650,000 for the sewer and water easements it had pledged for the mall.

But under dispute is Prince William's claim to compensation for 16 acres that Hazel promised to the county in exchange for rezoning the 542-acre property for a shopping mall. The county, which sued the government in 1990, also claimed it deserved restitution for facilities that Hazel promised to build, including nature trails, tennis courts and swimming pools, and for land for a fire station.

The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the bid for compensation for the promised "proffers" in 1995. The question of whether--and how much--Prince William should be compensated for the 16 acres has bounced back and forth between the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the Court of Appeals for five years, with ongoing disputes over the market value of the parcel.

Unless a settlement is reached, the case is scheduled to return to the claims court for trial Feb. 9 to determine, through appraisers hired by the county and the federal government, the property's value.