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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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.