In the face of federal laws which leave local zoning regulations powerless, West Tisbury officials are grappling with one of the first of a likely onslaught of requests for cellular phone towers dotting the town's rural landscape.

It's a familiar fight for the West Tisbury zoning board of appeals.

Five years after the board overturned a permit issued by the zoning inspector for a cellular phone tower on a wooded property just off State Road, another wireless communications giant is asking for rights to plant a flagpole tower in the same spot. At a public hearing Wednesday night, the board learned that this would certainly not be the last of their struggles as this technological age promises to bring a rush of towers in the years to come.

"You need to have a tower every mile or mile and a half?" asked Eric Whitman, chairman of the zoning board.

"There's no set rule, because it depends on topography, but that's a safe estimate," said John Keene, attorney for AT&T Wireless.

"So how many of these are you going to have on the Vineyard?" asked Tucker Hubbell, a member of the town's zoning board.

Mr. Keene ticked through the list of three existing towers, two other pending sites, and a wish list of other locations, saying: "Probably closer to 10 by the time we're done."

AT&T Wireless is but one of six companies competing in the Vineyard market.

Overhauls to the Telecommunications Act in 1996 deem cellular phone companies public utilities, requiring the companies for the companies to tap out their coverage areas - and legally clearing the way for them to do so. For the companies offering some coverage on the Vineyard, up-Island is frontier land. Chilmark, Aquinnah and West Tisbury, west of the airport, have little if any reception for most cell phone companies.

"We've learned there's about one chance in six million of having a ‘no' upheld in court," Mr. Whitman said.

AT&T Wireless submitted plans to the zoning board for a 60-foot tower more than a year ago. The 6.6-acre property on Old Courthouse Road in West Tisbury fails to meet setback requirements outlined in West Tisbury's cell tower bylaw. AT&T seeks setback waivers of as much as 260 feet - failing to meet the 400-foot distance from property lines. The applicant also seeks a 10-foot height variance.

The project spent much of the spring in front of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The zoning board referred the project to the regional land use agency. The commission approved the AT&T request with only a few site adjustments and also encouraged the company to seek other wireless companies to share the pole.

T-Mobile and Nextel have since joined AT&T's tower application. AT&T is now seeking a 70-foot tower instead of a 60-foot tower in order to accommodate its competitors. Mr. Keene explained that all antennae will be located inside the tower, eliminating any appendages protruding from the steel gray tower.

"Yes, we're competitors, but when it comes to network development, bylaws encourage co-location to try to minimize the proliferation of towers across your community," said Mr. Keene.

The town's cell tower bylaw was drafted after an Omnipoint tower took neighbors by surprise. The debate erupted into town appeals and federal lawsuits. Omnipoint eventually abandoned its court appeal, and property owner David Flanders removed the telephone pole structure just last year. But during Wednesday night's hearing, Mr. Keene suggested that the bylaw's noise limits and setback requirements are nearly prohibitive. Of the 2,700 properties in West Tisbury, only seven meet the 1,000-foot setback required for 100-foot towers, Mr. Keene said. Only 42 properties meet the 400-foot setback needed for a 60-foot tower. None of owners of these 49 properties would agree to lease land to AT&T, Mr. Keene said.

The requirement that noise at the perimeter of the tower should not exceed 50 decibels, Mr. Keene noted, is equally difficult to meet. Each of the three companys air conditioning equipment is expected to generate 50 decibels. The chirp of a bird or wind rustling through trees topped 60 decibels on the property, he said.

"You're essentially asking an air conditioner to not be above ambient noise levels when you're standing right next to it," said Mr. Keene.

But zoning board officials said they are already dealing with a noisy cell tower on the Department of Emergency Management fire tower near the North Shore.

"We were to the point where Verizon thought it would be shut down [because of the noise]," said Julie Keefe, zoning board of appeals administrator.

"The problem is you require a stretch of faith from an average guy like me. You're asking us to believe that you're nice guys and you work for a big company and you'll make it happen," said Mr. Whitman.

"But we don't have a great example of a cell tower working," added Bob Schwier, a zoning board of appeals member.

One Old Courthouse Road neighbor said the applicants obviously hadn't done their homework, saying they had overlooked a standard type of technology that would offer them greater range and ultimately reduce the number of overall towers needed.

"Three-mile [radius] technology is primitive. It's been around since the 1980s," said John Kosboski. "With adaptive antennas, you could have two or three antennas that will do the whole Island so they won't be in anyone's backyard."

None of the six representatives from the cellular phone applicants present Wednesday night could speak to Mr. Kosboski's suggestion.

"I'm simply wanting to know if they have done their homework before coming to the board asking them to bend their rules because it's a hardship," Mr. Kosboski added.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission and the West Tisbury zoning board are appealing to the state to allow cellular towers in the state forest. The regional land use planning subcommittee will be working in collaboration with local boards to map appropriate sites for the towers.

The zoning board continued the public hearing to Sept. 3 to allow abutters more time to comment on the application.