Culminating a longstanding legislative initiative, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Nov. 17 unanimously approved a zoning amendment that allows downtown and Saugatuck center businesses to use sidewalk signs.

Text Amendment 643 permits merchants to put up freestanding portable signs on their premises. Those displays must be either chalk or eraser boards and must also be handwritten. Such signs can only be used during business hours and require annual zoning permits.

"I think it's smart, I think it's great," said Bob LeRose, president of the Downtown Merchants Association and owner of Main Street barbecue restaurant Bobby Q's. "To be able to put up a sandwich board up every day, it certainly helps to draw attention to our restaurant."

For almost three years, the P&Z has allowed a townwide suspension of enforcing the existing regulations, which do not permit freestanding portable signs. At the request of First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, the P&Z originally endorsed the relaxation of the town's portable sign regulations in February 2009 to boost Westport businesses during the recession.

"The (P&Z) Commission determined that by allowing Westport businesses to have additional signage that it will help create more vitality for Westport's merchants," Planning and Zoning Director Larry Bradley said in an Oct. 21 public memorandum.

While the rules were not being enforced, the size and appearance of businesses' portable signs also were not regulated by officials.

Early next year, the P&Z will likely review a similar text amendment that would allow portable signs in all commercial zones in Westport.

Text Amendment 643 is scheduled to go into effect next Feb. 17.