The Hazel/Peterson Cos., one of Fairfax County's most influential developers, has agreed to buy a 514-acre tract beside the Manassas National Battlefield in Prince William County, a move that would cement the firm's position as a major player along the I-66 corridor, where it already owns three projects.

The property currently is owned by the Marriott Corp., which contracted to sell it to Centennial Development Corp. Centennial plans to resell the site immediately to Hazel/Peterson.

John L. Williams, vice president of development for Marriott, said his company will close its contract with Centennial, reportedly worth about $8 million, in February, regardless of the Hazel/Peterson deal.

David Smith, vice president at Centennial, said his company expects to settle separately with Hazel/Peterson the same month. He would not disclose the price.

The purchase of a property viewed by county officials as having great potential for development as corporate headquarters sites would mark Hazel/Peterson's first venture into the rapidly growing outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. The choice of Prince William County is also a boost to the county's growing reputation as a future market for commercial development, some developers say.

However, the payoff on that potential appears to be some years down the road. Centennial's decision to unload the property, only two months after it announced with much fanfare that it was buying it, came after its marketing studies showed that Prince William County's ability to attract the top-rank corporations that both the county and Centennial want is weaker than first thought. Several industry sources said the market could be a decade away.

"One consultant's report said that in the first five years, very, very little could be marketed, and then in the fifth to 10th years it would pick up," a source familiar with Centennial's deal said.

Centennial, which has built its reputation as a speculative office builder in hot Fairfax County markets, acknowledged that it cannot wait that long: "We determined the Manassas site would take a longer-range commitment than we are willing to undertake at this time," Elise Giebel, the firm's spokeswoman, said.

Hazel/Peterson, in contrast, is known for pioneering new markets and its ability to overcome tricky political and land-use planning problems connected with its developments. For instance, it took five years to win approval of Fair Lakes, the 620-acre mixed-use development at the junction of I-66 and the future Springfield Bypass.

A similar struggle is now under way over Virginia Center, a mixed-use project proposed for the Vienna Metro stop on I-66. Hazel/Peterson's third proposed I-66 development is the 407-acre Payne farm in Centreville. The Manassas tract is likely to test Hazel/Peterson's negotiating skills still further.

Although well located on the northern side of I-66, just west of the Manassas exit and surrounded by national parkland, the site has access problems. The county has said it needs an interchange with I-66 to serve the corporate office parks expected to be built there and to connect a bypass that the county wants to build west of Manassas. However, the county has no design plans or right-of-way for the interchange, let alone money to build it.

To solve that problem, as well as bear the cost of bringing utilities to the site, any developer interested in the Manassas tract needs "a humongous amount of money," said G. Anthony Guiffre, supervisor for the area. Hazel/Peterson could be one of the few Northern Virginia developers with deep enough pockets to carry those costs and wait long enough to get first-rate clients to settle there, industry sources say.

Raymond Spittle, director of Prince William County Service Authority, said the developer must pay to run sewer lines under I-66 to reach the site and would be asked to share the cost of extending water lines from Gainesville to the western edge of the tract.

Citizen opposition is another factor Hazel/Peterson may face. Robert Kelly, a spokesman for the company, said no development plans for the site will be ready before February, but there are indications that Hazel/Peterson may want to build some homes there. "It has been mentioned," said Roger Snyder, the county's planning director.

County plans, however, designate the site for corporate offices, and Guiffre wants to keep it that way. "They'll get a lot of opposition from me and I think some other board members if they want residential development ," he said.

In addition, many western Prince William County citizens are known for their opposition to residential growth. In the mid-1970s, they battled Marriott's efforts to locate an amusement park at the site. In recent months they have been highly vocal during residential rezoning hearings, such as one for the Saddle Run mixed-use project in Gainesville. But county officials have said they are open to discussing a mixed-use project.