Officials have a gift for merchants and downtown shoppers this holiday season.

In an effort to attract more shoppers to the downtown shopping district, a request to extend the parking limit in slots designated for one hour to two hours was unanimously approved Wednesday by the Board of Selectmen.

However, the extension is only temporary -- three months -- as a "way to test it out," said First Selectman Jim Marpe. If it works, the selectmen indicated the change could be permanent.

The extension will include town-owned property known as Parker Harding Plaza, along Main Street from Post Road East to Avery Place and on Church Lane and Elm Street.

Steve Desloge, president of the Downtown Merchants Association, made the case that extending the time limit on parking would "create a very pleasurable shopping experience."

"That's the goal," he said, adding the existing one-hour limit has been "the source of substantial complaints."

That, he said, includes a complaint he received recently from an irate customer who got a parking ticket five minutes after the hour-limit expired. "It said, `Thanks for making my decision not to shop downtown again,' " Desloge told the board.

He said he checked parking limits in nearby towns, including Fairfield, New Canaan and Ridgefield, and found each has limits on parking from 90 minutes to two hours.

Police Chief Dale Call, a lifelong resident, said the one-hour limit was adopted decades ago when the town was smaller and people went downtown for gas and perhaps shop at one or two places.

He said one hour then was probably enough. "But downtown has changed drastically -- you really can't do shopping in an hour," he said. "It does create a lot of aggravation for everybody."

He said the argument in favor of maintaining the one-hour parking limit would be that it creates a quicker turnover of parking spaces. But, he said, customers generally will just "go and move their car to another space" when they near the one-hour limit.

"We support it. It will be easier to enforce," Call said of the time-limit extension. He added this is the "best time to do it because it's the busiest time downtown"

Selectman Avi Kaner asked if there was a way to designate certain spots as 15 minutes or less to free up spaces. But Call said such a short time limit "would never be enforced."

The only way to enforce it, the chief said, would be to have someone stationed near those spots and issue tickets at 16 minutes. "I would try to stay away from that," he said.

"The idea is to encourage customers to go to multiple shops," added Selectman Helen Garten, who supported testing the time-limit extension through the holidays.

Public Works Director Stephen Edwards said there are 39 signs that would need the temporary designations and it could be done by putting a bag over the meters. Another way would be to put a sticker over "one hour" and changing it to "two."

Kaner said he preferred the sticker. It would cost about $1,200 to replace the signs.

Desloge said he would like to have the change in place by Black Friday, the busy shopping day after Thanksgiving.