By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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That was because Featherstone, having taken Bell's statement to mean that he'd been fired, had applied to the state for unemployment benefits. At first the Florida Division of Unemployment Compensation denied payment, accepting a claim by the county that Featherstone had abandoned his job. The former aide appealed the denial, and this past August the agency's appeals commission overturned the ruling on the grounds that Featherstone had no way of knowing he was being reassigned and not fired. Since then Featherstone, who shares a home in Miami Shores with his mother, has collected $88 per week in unemployment benefits.
Featherstone's persistence has not yielded as much success in his dealings with the Arch Creek Trust, which he joined not long after he began working at the park. During the past year, along with fellow trust member Lawrence Forti, he has waged a pitched battle against the majority of the citizens' group, alleging that the trust violated its own bylaws in electing its 1991 officers and board members without properly notifying the membership, and accusing the organization of flouting state law by not allowing its members to photocopy records. At the heart of the struggle, says Featherstone, is the trust's desire for the county to purchase a one-acre tract north of the current park boundary, which he and Forti claim has "absolutely no value as ecologically sensitive, endangered, or useful land."
Featherstone and his friend Forti insist that the group is abdicating its responsibility as watchdog for Arch Creek Park. The trust, Forti says, "operates like a social club. They are not by any stretch of the imagination environmentalists." Adds Featherstone: "They're an absolutely do-nothing group."
Attorney Maureen Harwitz, a founding member of the 50-member trust who now acts as its legal counsel, counters by saying that the organization has worked hard to tackle a cleanup of polluted Arch Creek, negotiating with the South Florida Water Management District, which has jurisdiction over the waterway, to discover the sources of contamination in the creek and to eliminate them. To Featherstone's and Forti's accusations, she responds that most of the trust volunteers are sedate people, unaccustomed to working with zealots in their midst. "They're picking on these folks," she says. "They only want to harass us. They want to start a revolution, but they're starting it at the garden club."
Through fund-raising efforts, including proceeds from two annual plant-and-craft fairs, Harwitz says the trust has raised $10,000 toward the purchase of the one-acre tract north of the park. "That property is part of the original archaeological zone. There have been environmental surveys by the Department of Natural Resources and they have recommended its acquisition," Harwitz says of the site, which is covered by wild corn, oaks and palms, and weeds, and is currently a campsite for a small group of homeless men, who have pitched tents there.
The money raised by the trust could be added to public funds set aside for the purchase of environmentally endangered lands, if a selection committee recommends the acquisition of the Arch Creek parcel when it convenes this spring, says Emilie Young, director of the county's Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. "It is certainly to their credit that they a have raised some money to put toward the purchase. It is an expression of interest and willingness of the community to share in paying for the cost." The Metro Commission has the final say about what properties are bought.
Fed up with Featherstone and Forti, officers of the trust drew up a list of charges against the pair. Accusations against Forti included interrupting meetings, attempting to foil the parkland purchase, and saying the trust didn't have the funds it had pledged for the acquisition. Among other things, Featherstone had allegedly disrupted meetings, attempted to undermine the purchase of the property, and harassed people with unwanted phone calls. On December 9, the trust voted 28 to 6 to kick the two men out of the group.
One of the people who supported Featherstone is Mary Ward, who joined the trust in June. "The only legitimate charge against John was disrupting meetings," she says. "He did it because he felt something that was important to the trust was not being addressed by the board. Every time he would try to ask a question [about the land acquisition], the board would ignore him. Consequently, he got very loud, very insistent in asking his questions."
Featherstone says he knows he often operates on a different wavelength from the more mainstream members of the Arch Creek Trust, or, for that matter, a lot of other people. Born in Michigan and reared in Miami, he quit high school at the age of seventeen, and moved to Ontario, Canada. He later returned to Miami to earn his diploma, and, dividing his time between Miami and Canada, he saved enough money in the Seventies to buy an abandoned farm 60 miles south of Ottawa, Canada, where he planted trees and an organic garden. He estimates that over the years he has planted hundreds of thousands of trees on his farm. In 1980 he purchased a small tract of land in Okeechobee County, where he planted more trees and experimented with raising shiitake mushrooms.