Ark Encounter plans to sue Kentucky over tax incentives

Ark Encounter plans to sue Kentucky over tax incentives
Mike Johnson (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Mike Johnson (Source: WAVE 3 News)
A drawing showing the layout of one of the decks at Ark Encounter. (Source: Janelle MacDonald, WAVE 3 News)
A drawing showing the layout of one of the decks at Ark Encounter. (Source: Janelle MacDonald, WAVE 3 News)
A closer looks at the deck layout. (Source: Janelle MacDonald, WAVE 3 News)
A closer looks at the deck layout. (Source: Janelle MacDonald, WAVE 3 News)

WILLIAMSTOWN, KY (WAVE) - It promises to soar seven stories into the air, attracting visitors from all over the country - maybe the world - to Kentucky. The Ark Encounter, now under construction in tiny Williamstown in Grant County, has attracted as much attention as it eventually hopes to attract visitors both for its scope and its tussle with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but few people have seen the park for themselves. WAVE 3 News got a tour of construction of the park.

Lawyers say this encounter is about to make an appearance in court and it's all over tax incentives. The lawyer for the Ark Encounter says it will sue the state in federal court to try to regain the rebates it believes the state should give it for building the biblical attraction.

Each day, dozens of people don their hard hats and get to work to build the ark. Mike Johnson is not one of them. Johnson is an attorney for Freedom Guard, which is representing the Ark Encounter and its parent company, Answers in Genesis. Johnson is the only person the groups will let speak on camera about the ark.

"It's a life-sized recreation of Noah's Ark," Johnson said. "They've taken the measurements from the biblical accounts and what biblical scholars say how it would be measured, a massive structure."

So while we had a guided tour of construction that lasted a couple hours, looking at all the clearing, plumbing and electrical work and that's been done, Johnson talked to us the next day about what we saw.

"They had to move over a million cubic tons, I think it was, of dirt," said Johnson.

The reason for the caution: Johnson said Ark Encounter and Answers in Genesis will file suit against Kentucky in federal court in February, challenging the state's decision to yank incentives for the sales tax and income tax the ark project generates.

"We feel the state has overstepped its bounds in terms of the constitution in state and federal law," said Johnson, "and we're planning now to proceed to the court to get that straightened out."

No one from the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet would talk about the ark project for this story, but did provide WAVE 3 News with letters, confirming - as we've reported in the past - that the state pulled incentives over concern the ark would refuse to hire some people based on their religion and the tax incentives would be used to advance religion.

The ark's lawyers responded that it is clear they are a religious organization and the state's conditions for getting tax rebates for the ark violate religious freedom.

"What they're supposed to look at strictly is the economic development features of the proposal and whether they'll hit certain benchmarks of tourist and tax dollars," Johnson said, "If they do, they'll meet the criteria and they should be able to play along just like everybody else."

Johnson says the ark could bring 1.2 million people a year to Kentucky. An independent report generated for the state puts that number at closer to 400,000, but estimates new tax revenue for Kentucky of $34 million over 10 years.

With or without the incentives, the park is supposed to open sometime in 2016.

Copyright 2015 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.