Smokers can continue puffing at Fairfield beaches this summer, but the tide could turn across most of the local shoreline by next year's beach season if a proposal to restrict smoking to designated areas wins approval.

"I do believe it's inevitable that this will happen eventually," Brian Nerreau, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said Wednesday night during a hearing on the smoking-restriction proposal. "Smoking has been removed from the parks, where children play baseball and soccer ¦ the theaters, the restaurants, from the corporate office space."

The commission voted to form a committee that will research the possibility of limiting smoking to designated areas on town beaches -- the five Long Island Sound beaches as well as Lake Mohegan. The findings are expected to be presented to the panel by winter so that it can rule in time for next summer.

The proposal for designated smoking areas at the beaches came from Susan Hersh, a regular visitor to Fairfield's beaches who became disgusted with the second-hand smoke and abundance of cigarette butts scattered around the shoreline.

"Beaches are loaded with cigarette butts," she said, noting that they can take up to 10 years to decompose. "The beach is an ash tray."

She researched the regulations in other Fairfield County communities, and none had banned smoking at the beach or restricted smoking to specific areas.

However, Hersh did find that Westerly, R.I., has an area close to a parking lot where smokers are required to go to have a cigarette.

"I'm not saying smokers should not come to the beach, but I think we need to have non-smokers enjoy the beach," she said.

The town does not allow smoking in parks when youth recreational activities are taking place, such as a Little League game, or at playgrounds.

According to First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, complaints about cigarette butts strewn across the beaches are common.

"I have had hundreds of people complain to me about that over the years," Flatto said. "I'm not saying dozens. I'm saying hundreds."

Town regulations prohibit such littering, which includes tossing away cigarette butts, but Gerald Lombardo, the parks and recreation director, said enforcement is difficult.

"You see all the time people driving on the highway in their cars and flipping out a cigarette," Lombardo said. "I've never known anyone to get arrested for littering a cigarette butt."

While the smoking-restriction proposal was warmly received by several commission members, Michael Hahn was uneasy about imposing regulations that would force people to smoke in designated areas.

"I'm not comfortable doing that from a government standpoint," he said.

Still, commission member Robert Seirup considered the designated smoking spaces as a more palpable option than simply banning smoking at town beaches, which was proposed several years ago but never gained traction.

"This seems like a much better idea to accept for the general public," he said.