Daffodils and cherry blossoms aren't the only things popping up early in Fairfield this spring.

Thanks to a recent vote by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, local dining establishments that already have approval for outdoor dining got to put out their table and chairs on April 1, a month earlier than previously allowed under zoning regulations.

"Next year, we might not want to be out there so early, but this year, it's been so nice," said Mike Baffa, manager at Flipside Burgers in the Brick Walk shopping center downtown. With Wednesday's mild temperatures Baffa said the restaurant's patio was full.

"For us, it's been great," he said, of the TPZ approval for an earlier start to the outdoor-dining season. "After being cooped up all winter, people want to be outside."

Until this year, restaurants could not use their al fresco dining areas until May 1. And that, Baffa said, often posed a problem when nice weather arrived earlier.

"It was hard for us to have to say `no' to people when they asked to sit outside," Baffa said. "They didn't understand it was a zoning regulation."

The commission approved the earlier date at a March meeting when it reviewed and renewed approvals for 34 dining establishments in town that have obtained permission for outdoor seating.

According to Assistant Planning Director James Wendt, even though the date in earlier years has been May 1, by the second or third week in April if the weather has been mild, restaurants have tended to "migrate their tables outdoors."

"I think it's a great idea," said Susan Dederick, the owner of Centro on the Post Road, where the sun-drenched patio looks onto the Sherman Green.

"We want to create a lot of activities downtown," Dederick said. "Our customers are always begging to go outside."

Dederick said she thinks restaurants should be allowed to use outdoor dining spaces whenever the weather cooperates.

For Sharon Parker, who was enjoying lunch on Centro's patio Wednesday, being able to eat outside on a nice day is "the true harbinger of spring." She feels it also shows the vibrancy of downtown when tables are packed with customers. "People driving down the Post Road will see it and think, `Hey, this is a good place to be.' "

The TPZ took the opportunity when sending out notification of the earlier start for outdoor dining to remind restaurants owners that advertising for their establishments on fences or barriers used to mark their outdoor space is not allowed. The outdoor dining permits must be approved each year, and TPZ commissioners indicated it is possible that the date could revert back to May 1 next year, depending on this year's experience and the weather.

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