Pasco's Moon Lake community tries to shed reputation
MOON LAKE - Cheryl Hill loves living in Moon Lake. She takes her 4-year-old granddaughter swimming at Moon Lake Park on weekends and enjoys seeing families celebrate birthdays and stage barbecues at the pavilion. She also knows the Pasco County community seems to draw attention only after a tragedy such as the April 14 death of 1-week-old Thomas Carter Jr., mauled by a pit bull mix while his 16-year-old mother dozed in the room. Thomas was the second baby in Moon Lake killed by a dog since Dec. 12, when 22-month-old Dallas Lee Walters was attacked by a relative's Rottweiler-Labrador mix at a birthday party.The dog attacks seem to have perpetuated Moon Lake's image as a blighted community with tragic flaws. Lisa Comstock, who has lived in the community since 1983, characterized areas of Moon Lake as "10 times worse than the inner city." But like many residents who recognize its shortcomings, she isn't eager to leave. "Even if I won the lottery, I'd still come back and visit," she said. "I'll always come back." Moon Lake stigma It seems there always has been a stigma about Moon Lake, the community between Ridge Road and State Road 52 where slightly more than 4,000 people live, according to the U.S. Census. Rumor has it that gangster Al Capone hid from the law at Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, a log cabin-style resort known as "the lodge." In June 1990, a coven of witches exchanged gunfire with neighbors in the community. A few years later, the Ku Klux Klan signed up to collect litter along a road in Moon Lake, angering residents. Crime is no stranger, either. Pasco sheriff's deputies were called to Moon Lake an average of 16 times a day from Jan. 1, 2005, through April 29, records show. Most calls were traffic-related, although there were nearly 1,000 burglaries and 1,000 domestic disturbances investigated, roughly 900 thefts and almost 400 animal complaints; one slaying was reported, records show. By contrast, deputies were called to the nearby River Ridge community - slightly smaller than Moon Lake in acreage and with about 2,000 fewer lots - an average of three times a day during the same period. In that five years, the busiest day in Moon Lake was April 1, 2009, when deputies were called to the community 46 times. "The problems have more to do with infrastructure," said Kevin Doll, a Pasco sheriff's spokesman. "A lot of roads are unpaved. It's a wooded area, so if somebody flees it's easy to get away because of the woods and dirt roads." Despite the bleak history, several residents say the area has improved. Linda Damm is a longtime Moon Lake resident and owner of Boondocks Bar, Grill and Pizzeria on Moon Lake Road. She said the community has worked to clean up its image, as has her business. She said Boondocks once was known as a rowdy biker bar where the customers were as interested in throwing punches as they were in drinking beer. That changed in the early 1980s, she said, with new management. "We don't have a problem anymore with fights and stuff like that," Damm said. "Moon Lake gets a bad rap for too many things." People driving east through Moon Lake Estates might not be surprised by the crime statistics. Some of the yards and homes are well-kept, but many are not. Potholes on some of the unpaved roads conjure up images of moon craters. But Hill, who has lived for several years in Moon Lake - where many lots are occupied by single-wide mobile homes - is quick to say, "Not everybody who lives out here is trailer trash. "I think that's a misconception," she said. "I don't live in a trailer. I have a nice three-bedroom, two-bath house. And just because someone lives in a trailer, that doesn't mean they're bad. For the most part, everybody gets along." Drive along Moon Lake Road and you will see two different worlds. On the east side of the road is Moon Lake Estates, the community that defines "Moon Lake." On the other side are communities such as Water's Edge, a 712-acre gated subdivision with deed restrictions. Homes in Water's Edge are new, large and well-maintained. The yards are immaculate. "There are some people who still shy away from Moon Lake because of the stigma," said Roy Barnhart, a Realtor who has been selling in west Pasco since 1997. Barnhart specifies when properties are "in Water's Edge," leaving out "Moon Lake" if possible. He hasn't sold anything in Moon Lake Estates recently. It wasn't always that way. Moon Lake Gardens/Dude Ranch was built between 1933 and 1937 by Ed Haley, who also owned Clearwater's Fort Harrison hotel. The lavish project included a resort dotted with cottages and a casino, and the land and gardens proved to be a significant tourist draw. Schools performing well Education also is a contrast. Moon Lake Elementary - with 723 pupils, many of whom live in the northern area of Moon Lake Estates - received an A grade from the state last year, improving from a B in 2007-08. Nearly 75 percent of the students at the Title I school - a designation for a high percentage of low-income families - are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. By comparison, the school district average of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches per school is less than 52 percent, according to the Pasco County school district. "When you talk to (leaders at other schools) you find it's no worse or better," said Moon Lake Elementary Principal Elise Landahl, who has been at the school since last year. "We have our issues some days, and some days we don't have any problems." Children living in southern Moon Lake attend Cypress Elementary, which has 833 pupils and also received an A grade last year. It is not a Title I school, and less than 54 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Landahl said Title I schools generally have difficulty getting parents involved, but she didn't attribute that to a lack of commitment or interest. Often, she said, parents at schools like hers work service-industry jobs or have inconsistent schedules. "We have a consistent base of parents who do want to be involved," she said. "And our PTA this year is very strong. But I think it is one of those things you always want to improve on." 'One of the good things' On a recent weekend, Comstock, the longtime resident, helped plant a garden at the nondenominational Moon Lake Christian Fellowship Church, where she often volunteers. The sun blazed mercilessly, and Comstock found a shady spot to plant flowers and have a cigarette. "Moon Lake is a cheap place to live," she said. "You get people without a lot of money and understanding, and a lot of people here are kind of down and out. Drugs are prevalent. People come and they go. I've been awakened at 2 a.m. by crack (addicts) wanting me to let them in." Construction on the church, founded by Lad Dubovsky and his wife, Marie Tuller, a few years ago, was only recently completed. Dubovsky said he performed the funeral for Thomas, the week-old baby attacked by the pit bull mix last month. He knows the area is associated with "guns, shooting and Al Capone and the outlaws," and he acknowledged the area still is depressed. "People come in, they have no clothes," he said. Dubovsky surveyed those working around him, and his eyes fell on a man who spends much of his time volunteering at the church. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, the man was telling his story of salvation to a stranger. Nearby, other volunteers, including a pair of teenagers, were planting a butterfly garden and a memory garden. Dubovsky smiled as he watched the activity. Earlier that day he had helped distribute food to 50 people who came by the church. Some also were grateful to find donated furniture and appliances. "This is one of the good things about Moon Lake," he said.
Reporters Kevin Wiatrowski, Lisa A. Davis and Ronnie Blair contributed to this report. Reporter Geoff Fox can be reached at (813) 259-8116.