Developer Albert Ceccone thought it was a harmless enough offer: Propose giving a house to the town of Laytonsville, if town fathers are willing to pay to have it moved, in order to make room to build a new shopping center there.

But among town council members, there is no simple "yes" or "no." Indeed, the offer has spawned a debate over the recurrent question of whether a town hall is needed in this placid, rural community in upper Montgomery County.

Ceccone has proposed building a $2.3 million shopping center -- the largest commercial development ever proposed for the three-square-mile community -- on the 3.8-acre site where the house now stands off Rte. 108.

He has offered to donate the house, a three-bedroom Cape Cod with more than 2,000 square feet of space, to any town, church or charity group as long as the obtainer is willing to pay moving expenses.

Bids to have the white-brick house removed range from $21,000 to $25,000.

"It would be a shame to demolish the house," Ceccone said. "It would probably be a lot better to give it to some worthwhile organization or entity. . . . Our goal is to provide a service benefit."

Some council members would like to have the house so that they can convert it into a town hall, providing what they see as a much-needed focal point for the town's 200 residents.

For years, Laytonsville Town Council meetings, normally quiet affairs held the first Monday of every month, have been carried out at the local fire department on Laytonsville Road. As a compensatory gesture, the town donates about $400 a year to the volunteer department.

"The town has been in existence for over 90 years now, and has had no central focal point for the government," council member Larry L. Barker said. "The whole area is moving up in this direction, and Laytonsville is looked at as a focal point in this area.

"I am looking at a place for recreation, for town meetings, and for general business of the town and where various organizations in town can meet," Barker said.

Others, however, say they want nothing to do with the house, fearing that it would lead to mounting operating and maintenance expenses for a government that runs on about $25,000 a year, owns no real estate and has no debt.

"We have no land to put the house on," Mayor Charles T. White said. "So we would have, in addition to the moving cost, the cost to purchase property to set the house on. We're talking about maybe $40,000 just for a couple of acres, not to mention utility costs."

"I've always believed that other things within the town created the focal point in the area," White went on. "The elementary school, the three churches, the fire department, the bank -- all those things make up the focal point in the community, rather than the government body."

But Barker says obstacles to owning the house can be overcome. He has asked area land owners to consider donating land to relocate the house. He also has asked Ceccone to consider paying the moving expenses in exchange for an exemption "for a few years" from commercial property taxes generated by the shopping center.

Ceccone said he hopes to get an answer from the council within the next few weeks. He said he is not sure at this point what will happen to the house if the town or some other party does not want it.