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Don McClosky:


A Preeminent Land Use Attorney


South Florida Legal Guide - 2010 Edition


Don McClosky has left a lasting imprint on Broward County. As one of South Florida’s preeminent land use attorneys for more than five decades, McClosky has helped commercial and residential developers bring lasting economic vitality to the region. “Don is probably the best land use attorney I have ever known,” says Charles Palmer, chairman of Sea Ranch Properties. “He’s been my legal counsel since 1974. Don has the ability to conceptualize issues and explain them to local government bodies.”

But McClosky, a longtime partner in the Fort Lauderdale firm Ruden McClosky, is also known for his strength of character and commitment to helping individuals in need. He’s an active supporter of Special Olympics and has raised substantial funds to fight cystic fibrosis, an incurable disease that afflicts his 24-year-old granddaughter Andrea.

“I’ve known Don for more than 40 years,” says Emmett McTigue, a Broward real estate investor. “He’s helped a lot of people, not just from a legal standpoint, but by seeing them through difficult times. He’s reliable and empathetic and a well-balanced human being. His strengths are his integrity and love of family. He’s just a really good guy.”

GETTING HIS START

Born in Miami in 1926, McClosky grew up in the Depression era, and graduated from Miami High during World War II with classmate Robert Traurig, co-founder of Miami’s Greenberg Traurig law firm. McClosky served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, then enrolled at the University of Miami, working at a Jackson Byron department store to help pay his tuition. At age 23, McClosky became the chain’s youngest store manager. Then, he met Simon Ruden, a law student at the university who convinced McClosky to consider a career change. “I didn’t want to sell insurance or be a CPA, so I enrolled in the School of Law.

During the late 1950s, McClosky managed his store, and drove down U.S. 441 from Plantation to Coral Gables four nights a week, while his wife Judy stayed home to raise a growing family.

In 1960, Ruden and Elliott Barnett started a law firm on N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale and were soon joined by Carl Shuster and McClosky, who had just been admitted to the Bar. Initially, his practice consisted of transactional work, such as divorces, wills, and drunk-driving arrests.

Then, one of McClosky’s clients approached him about selling a corner lot in Fort Lauderdale that would be suitable for a gas station. “The big oil companies like Shell or Texaco wouldn’t buy the lot without proper curb cuts or median cuts,” McClosky recalls. “So I went to work, read the city and county codes and saw what we had to do to put the transaction together. Before long, I got to be pretty good at real estate matters and developers started calling me about their land issues.”

More than one client gives McClosky high marks for intelligence and creative solutions. “One of the reasons for Don’s success is his ability to think outside the box,” says McTigue. “He’s a very skillful strategist. He understands human nature and is a very wise counselor.”

A FORCE IN REAL ESTATE

In the 1960s, South Florida was just beginning a construction boom that would last, almost without a break, until 2005-06. McClosky represented developers building single family homes in western Broward and southern Palm Beach County, condominiums and hotels along the coast and commercial projects in downtown Fort Lauderdale and throughout the region.

“When I started my practice, you could shoot a cannon down Las Olas Boulevard after 4 pm and not hit anyone,” he says. “It was just another street that happened to be a thoroughfare to the beach. What changed the character of Las Olas? The city allowed parking on the street and approved sidewalk restaurants, and that began to attract residents and visitors. Today, it’s one of the city’s finest streets.”

One of McClosky’s early accomplishments was winning approval for the Marriott Harbor Beach in the face of neighborhood opposition. As the first new hotel built on the city’s beachfront in decades, the Marriott helped bring upscale tourism back to the city. In the 1980s, he represented the owners of Bahia Mar and Pier 66, helping them gain permission to increase marina dockage and renovate their resort properties. To the west, McClosky played a leading role in winning approval for Sawgrass Mills Mall in Sunrise — a mega-shopping center that’s become the region’s largest visitor attraction.

Meanwhile, McClosky’s reputation continued to grow. Palmer recalls engaging McClosky for Sea Ranch Club of Boca, a waterfront condominium project. “We had some issues to solve and the city commission had scheduled a second meeting on a date that Don was going to be on vacation,” Palmer says. “So Don stood up before the council and told them, ‘If I’m not here on that date, my client will hang me. But if I’m not on vacation, my wife will divorce me.’ The commission had a good laugh and changed the date.”

While many things about the South Florida landscape have changed since the 1960s, one constant has been opposition to new projects from opponents who don’t want so see development in their neighborhoods. “If I’m doing my job right, we’ll meet with the opposition and try to explain things to them, so there’s no misunderstanding. We may not win them over, but it takes away some of the vigor of the opposition.”

In the past few years, South Florida’s real estate picture has darkened, and McClosky’s practice has changed from winning approvals to finding workout solutions for distressed properties. “We talk to the lenders and analyze the problem,” he says. “Is it better to foreclose and take it back, leaving the bank to mana
ge the property? Or can the loan be restructured, leaving the owner in charge to keep
things moving? Our firm’s experience and technical knowledge can
 help lenders facing those kinds of questions.”

Reflecting on his career, McClosky is proud of his firm’s success over the past 50 years. “We’ve got 11 offices with 150 lawyers and it only took us five decades to get there,” he says with a smile.

But he believes his largest accomplishments have been on the personal side. “I have a wonderful wife who’s been with me for 57 years, and three loving children who still call me and ask for advice,” he says. “You can’t ask for more than that in life.”

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