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Lawyer practiced realty, construction law

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The Indiana legal community has lost a former prosecutor and private attorney who, during his five decades of practice, established himself as a state and national expert in realty and construction law.

Greenwood attorney Joe N. Van Valer, 75, died Jan. 16 at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Franklin. The 1963 Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis graduate was the founding and senior partner at Van Valer Law Firm, located in a restored Civil War-era building in downtown Greenwood. The firm specializes in land use, development, and construction law.

Family and friends say Van Valer is often described as “the face of Greenwood” because he was prominent in the community and a pivotal force in making the city and state what it is today. Through the decades his legal work helped create the Greenwood Park Mall and thousands of home developments that multiplied by five the city’s then-population of 11,000 residents. His expertise in building and realty law reshaped that industry statewide and nationally on the home owner warranty front.

But more than that, Van Valer was a lawyer who was more concerned about knowing and having a relationship with his clients than the billable hour, and his fascination with the law transcended every other aspect of what he did in his professional life.

“He really enjoyed teaching about law and life,” said his daughter, Kim Van Valer. Kim worked at the family firm when she was young, and she returned to the firm in 2009 after serving as a Johnson Superior 3 judge.

“The idea of the law was a real philosophy of his, and it was not about just saying ‘this is the rule.’ To him, it was always about this being the way the world should work, that this is a structure worthy of people modeling their lives after. It’s not perfect by any means, but I got the real impression that he felt the law was man’s best effort to live right and impose a set of rules to guide us,” she added.

Throughout his career, Van Valer represented numerous developers who built new homes in Greenwood during the last few decades. His influence extended beyond his city and county. He helped draft laws creating the impact fees that developers pay to fund new parks and roads as well as a law that made the state one of the most consumer-friendly for implied home warranties that protect homebuyers from construction defects discovered within 10 years. Van Valer also lobbied for federal legislation that allowed private insurance companies to insure home warranties.

“He got very involved in development in the early 70s and helped develop the neighborhood that he and my mom lived in. That, and how it was paid for, became his areas of expertise,” Kim said.

Before opening the Van Valer Law Firm in the 1990s, Van Valer practiced at a variety of predecessor firms with other attorneys. He served as the Johnson County prosecutor from 1967 to 1974, and it was that role that led to an appearance in the late 1980s in the first episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” City and police officials said Van Valer was the first prosecutor to train police officers on how to handle evidence and testify in court. He also served as attorney for Greenwood Community Schools and was actively involved in many community projects.

Kim says her dad always had a “big picture vision of what a community should be,” an idea that came from his parents who were community leaders in Johnson County. His dad was a volunteer fire chief and newspaper editor, while his mother was the first executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce.

He obtained that community vision from his parents and carried it and a love for family on through the generations, Kim said. A family ritual for the past few decades involved her dad spending time with and entertaining his kids and 11 grandchildren, she said.

All four of his children, including Kim, worked at the family firm as soon as each was old enough to hold a job and follow instructions.

“I’ve done everything there is to do here,” Kim said. “He’d bring us in to the office, and at first we went to work to play … talking to each other on intercom phones was what we thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then we did some organizing and filing, and eventually we just learned how a law office functioned. I really enjoyed it, and I think that did influence my career choice.”

Kim said her dad became ill last year and stopped coming into the office full-time.

“He loved working, just talking to clients,” she said. “Whatever the conversation was about, he just wanted to help people and use his knowledge to work through problems.”

Those remembering Van Valer say he was proud of his publications and the teaching he did through the years on topics such as farm estate planning, wealth management for closely held corporations, and the impact of interstate land sales. Van Valer received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Johnson County Builders Association and he received many other civic and development and legal awards during his career. He was a member of the board of directors of the Home Warranty Corporation of Washington D.C. for more than five years, and he also served on the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis governing board since 1975.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Johnson County Humane Society or the Joe N. Van Valer Pre-Law Fund in the advancement office at Franklin College, where he spent his undergraduate years.•

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