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Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, Inc. v. Hall County Board of Equalization

Supreme Court of Nebraska

February 9, 2018

Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, Inc., appellant,
v.
Hall County Board of Equalization, appellee.

         1. Taxation: Judgments: Appeal and Error. Appellate courts review decisions rendered by the Tax Equalization and Review Commission for errors appearing on the record.

         2. Judgments: Appeal and Error. When reviewing a judgment for errors appearing on the record, an appellate court's inquiry is whether the decision conforms to the law, is supported by competent evidence, and is neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable.

         3. Taxation: Statutes: Appeal and Error. The meaning of a statute is a question of law, and a reviewing court is obligated to reach its conclusions independent of the determination made by the Tax Equalization and Review Commission.

         4. Taxation: Charities. A tax exemption for charitable use is allowed because those exemptions benefit the public generally and the organization performs services which the state is relieved pro tanto from performing.

         Appeal from the Tax Equalization and Review Commission. Reversed and remanded with directions.

          Jordan W. Adam, of Fraser Stryker P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.

          Timothy L. Moll, of Rembolt Ludtke, L.L.R, for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

          [298 Neb. 971] KELCH, J.

         NATURE OF CASE

         The issue presented is whether the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, Inc. (Crane Trust), is a charitable organization within the meaning of Neb. Rev. Stat. § 77-202(1)(d) (Cum. Supp. 2014).

         BACKGROUND

         Application for Exemption

         The Crane Trust is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to conserving and protecting the natural habitat for whooping Cranes, sandhill Cranes, and other migratory birds along the Platte River in central Nebraska. For the last decade, the Hall County Board of Equalization (Board) granted a charitable tax exemption under § 77-202(1)(d) to various properties owned by the Crane Trust. In December 2014, the Crane Trust sought a property tax exemption for six additional parcels of land (Subject Properties). The Subject Properties consist of 829.68 acres of land and carry a property tax liability of approximately $22, 000 for 2015, the tax year in question. At that time, the Board denied the Crane Trust's application for a property tax exemption for the Subject Properties. There is no explanation in the record as to why the Board granted tax exemption to some of the Crane Trust's properties, but not to the Subject Properties.

         The Crane Trust appealed to the Nebraska Tax Equalization and Review Commission (TERC). A hearing was held, during which the Crane Trust presented evidence about its educational efforts, contributions to the scientific community, and other benefits to the public. The evidence was largely undisputed.

         Evidence Presented at Hearing

         The Crane Trust presented evidence showing that its conservation efforts benefit the thousands of people who visit its property each year to observe the crane migration, learn about the prairie, and interact with nature. The Crane Trust [298 Neb. 972] provides free public tours during crane season, and its property is open year round at no charge to the public. The Crane Trust also has a large network of public trails, which are used by the public for exercise and for an annual cross-country race for a local high school.

         Students, researchers, and scientists from all across the country visit the Crane Trust to perform scientific research on the Subject Properties every week. The Crane Trust also performs research on the land and has published more than 30 articles in the past decade, which are available to the public for free. Some of the articles come from research that the Crane Trust performed on the Subject Properties in 2015.

         The Crane Trust also provides educational activities to teach the public about habitat and conservation. It posts informational signs along its trails and hosts a program for public schools in which students visit its property every month to study the plants, wildlife, insects, and habitat with the help of a Crane Trust biologist.

         The evidence also showed that a portion of the Subject Properties was leased to a farming operation for cattle grazing, for which the Crane Trust received $9, 300. The Crane Trust's chief executive officer testified that the lease money was not distributed to its members, directors, officers, or anyone else and that the cost of managing the Subject Properties far exceeded the amount of lease money. The chief executive officer testified that the cattle grazing was part of the Crane Trust's habitat management program-that the grazing and hoof compaction on the soil provides a natural disturbance on the grassland that helps promote and sustain different species on the parcels, cycle nutrients on the prairie, open up the grassland for the crane to use, and keep invasive species of plants at bay.

         TERC Affirms Board's Denial of Exemption Following the hearing, TERC affirmed the Board's decision to deny tax exemption to the Subject Properties. It stated [298 Neb. 973] that the issue was whether the term "charitable organization" in the relevant statute was broad enough to include an organization devoted to protecting natural habitat. It concluded that although the Crane Trust provides educational, scientific, and recreational benefits to the public, Nebraska courts have limited charitable exemptions to "traditional charitable enterprises providing relief [to] the poor and distressed." ...


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