Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, Inc., appellant,
Hall County Board of Equalization, appellee.
Taxation: Judgments: Appeal and Error.
Appellate courts review decisions rendered by the Tax
Equalization and Review Commission for errors appearing on
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.
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
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.
from the Tax Equalization and Review Commission. Reversed and
remanded with directions.
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
Neb. 971] KELCH, J.
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).
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
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.
Presented at Hearing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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." ...