Actually, having spent a bit more time with nginx and lighttpd, i confess that the previous accusations of being unable to support conf.d was unfair. Both were able to do it, but for various reasons only lighttpd on debian was actually supported (out of the four combinations that i'm tracking, lighttpd/nginx on fedora/debian). Appropriate bugs were raised with maintainers and upstream and now nginx is supporting conf.d on fedora 9 and in debian sid.
very cool and much thanks to the excellent people maintaining the nginx distributions at debian and fedora and to the good upstream support from Igor Sysoev.
i still need this bug solved for my application to run under on lighttpd