Carhenge, the Number 2 “Wackiest Attraction” in America in 2009, behind only San Antonio’s toilet seat museum, recently had its educational exemption from property taxes upheld by the Nebraska Tax Equalization and Review Commission. The outdoor exhibit is a replica of Stonehenge, “England’s ancient alignment of stones that chart the phases of the sun and the moon,” and consists of 38 automobiles placed in a circle approximately 96 feet in diameter. According to the official website, “Some autos are held upright in pits five feet deep, trunk end down, while those cars which are placed to form the arches have been welded in place. All are covered with gray spray paint.”
So how did an exhibit that lost a contest to a toilet seat museum qualify for a property tax exemption? The commission held that Carhenge, which is run by a nonprofit organization, Friends of Carhenge, provides sufficient educational information to be considered owned by an educational organization, and used exclusively for educational purposes. [For more information on property tax exemptions for educational institutions, see BBNA’s Property Tax Navigator.]
For example, the Box Butte County Commissioner that granted the exemption testified that Carhenge provides informational brochures to its visitors both online and in person. Specifically, the commission said, “Noting that many historians ‘believe Stonehenge was an important burial site,’ the brochure provides background regarding the concept of Carhenge as a burial ground for older model ‘gas-guzzlers’” manufactured in the 1980s.
As if that were not enough, the commission went on to describe more recent additions to the Carhenge property, known collectively as the Car Art Reserve. The highlight of the reserve is The Ford Seasons, which is “inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and consists of four Fords arranged to depict the four cycles of Nebraska’s wheat crop production.” Other notable sculptures include The Spawning Salmon, Dino, a dinosaur replica, and Carnastoga,an old “woodie” station wagon that is made to resemble the wagons early settlers rode west.
In addition to the educational brochures, the county commissioner also testified that Carhenge hosts summer solstice events, and hires staff and local students to provide information to visitors and answer questions. Also, although Carhenge does not offer any regular courses or instruction, it does host student field trips. The commission ultimately found that Carhenge met Nebraska’s definition of an “educational organization,” since the term encompasses museums operated for the public’s benefit. In turn, the commission determined that Carhenge met the state’s definition of “museum,” finding the fact that it was not a member of the National Museum Association or owned by a government entity irrelevant.
Lastly, the commission found that the Nebraska Tax Commissioner failed to rebut the county’s determination that Carhenge and the Car Art Reserve were used exclusively for educational purposes. The appellant argued that because the structures only covered two out of ten acres, the property did not meet the exclusive use requirement. The commission disagreed, stating that the remaining property was necessary for viewing and enjoying Carhenge and the other structures, and that the open space was particularly important for preserving the annual summer solstice event.
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