An Unpleasant Surprise: Historic Washington Hotel faces unexpected fire insurance bill News

When Charity Jackson and her husband Cameron Collins bought the Washington Hotel in the small town of the same name, they were well on their way to realizing their dream of country living in beautiful surroundings.

For the most part, the pair watched their vision materialize until a few months ago, when Jackson received a life-changing mail.

“On December 16th, I opened a California FAIR Plan renewal notice and it was (an invoice) for $33,491.00. And that was on a Friday at 4:50 p.m., so I cried,” Jackson said. “But I also thought that must be a mistake and put it on my desk because nobody was going to get in touch with me anyway.”

The California FAIR Plan was founded to meet the needs of California homeowners who cannot find insurance in the traditional market, according to its website. It is neither a state authority nor a corporation under public law. They receive no monies from the public or taxpayers.

Jackson recalls calling her insurance agent the following Monday and speaking to him and her SBA loan broker. Since Jackson and Collins have a mortgage on the Washington hotel business, they must have fire insurance, and Jackson said she would still want the service.

“I’ve always had insurance since I’ve owned it,” Jackson said. “So I got on the phone with them and with California FAIR Plan on (this) Monday and it wasn’t a mistake. It’s a brush surcharge and is based on an inspection they did in February that I wasn’t aware of.

“I had no idea they were here and I had no idea it was even done until I called after being notified on December 16.”

When Jackson successfully contacted someone from California FAIR, she was told they had sent a letter in September advising that an inspection would be held and there would be a brush surcharge. Jackson said she received a copy of the letter, dated the same day as another notice.

“A letter explained that they conducted the inspection back in February and this letter is dated September,” Jackson said. “So seven months after (the inspection). I say I hadn’t seen it. Even if I had seen it, I would never have equated that phrase with, ‘That means we’re adding more than $22,000 to your bounty.’”

In fact, that’s what happened.

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Another letter, dated September 22, 2022, stated that it was an insurance request and repeatedly mentioned that they would be in touch with Jackson to arrange an inspection. Jackson said she was never contacted.

“I reached out to everyone,” she said. “I thought that was crazy. From there…that Monday the 19th, I contacted the County Board of Supervisors. Our representative is Hardy Bullock. He responded but I feel like we’re kind of waiting now for my claim to be pending with the state, but I’m also hoping they’re all looking at any possible grants that might be available; not necessarily for insurance, but maybe to offset some repairs and maintenance here. Or anything like that that would help me rebudget money.”

A December letter to Jackson read “exactly the same thing,” in other words, another announcement of an inspection. On December 21, California FAIR said they would contact them for an inspection.

“Also in September they said they would contact me for an inspection the same day they sent this letter saying they had not made an inspection in February. Hadn’t received an inspection before, never knew they were here. Nothing.”

If it comes down to it, Jackson and Collins have been told by California FAIR that they will have to clear 400 feet of brush and trees from the property surrounding the Washington Hotel, which also serves as a restaurant and pub.

“The California state code and Nevada County ordinance, 100 feet is all it addresses,” Jackson continued. “The California code doesn’t speak even outside of your borders. So they expect me to have 400 feet of responsibility, and that goes into forest service land. We have consultants from the Nevada County Fire Safe Council who are local and have inspected the property. Our property does not face a major fire risk in terms of concentrated scrub and the like.”

Jackson acquired the building, which was constructed in 1857, in 2017. In addition to her many loyal customers and familiar faces, Jackson has welcomed celebrities such as chef Guy Fieri and rocker Billy Idol. She suspects it might serve as a balance to the attention they get in every major city.

“Before I was with California FAIR, I was with a company called Northfield,” Jackson continued, “and they didn’t renew us in 2019, so the policy expired in September 2019. At that point, my bounty was $4,659.00. I had 3 months that I didn’t have insurance when (they) expired but then my agent bought as much as we could and we defaulted to the California FAIR plan and my last annual premium with them was $10,879 -Dollar. It’s a lot more reasonable than $33,000.”

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Jackson pointed out that their location can be difficult to get through, especially during the winter months. Her busy period, she said, begins in the spring and typically lasts well into November. She said it’s rare for the hotel to have a weekend when there are no guests.

“This building requires a lot of maintenance because of its age and location, and then just doing business in California in general has a huge overhead,” Jackson said.

“All of that is fine because we love it here and we do it because we have to make a living, but also because we love Washington and this place. But I don’t have $22,000 left. That’s a huge amount of money.

“What’s scary is that it’s an annual event and I was really ill-prepared for it. I can try to rotate and do everything in my power to schedule this and change prices, try to change everything to accommodate. But not having a notification and getting it communicated as it was was devastating. And thinking about it every year, working as hard as we do to keep this little place alive feels a bit overwhelming at times. But you know I still love this place and we have a tremendous amount of support which is amazing.”

Jackson said she and her husband are working as many shifts as possible, especially since increased fire insurance has forced them to lay off some of their staff.

Meanwhile, in her spare time, Jackson shops for any insurance policies that could work for her business, but finds little luck. Based on recommendations from friends, she estimates she has spent about 60 hours of her life looking for insurance without a tremendous amount of time contacting California FAIR, the state, the county, the Nevada County Fire Safe Council and the Nevada County Resource Conservation District and United States Forest Service.

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“I got almost all rejections. There were a few companies that said they would write (the policy), but they start at $50,000 to $70,000,” Jackson said.

Right now, Jackson is on a payment plan made possible by interest-free credit cards she has. 40 percent of her $33,000 payment has already been paid, and thanks to GoFundMe, she is ready to make the next 30 percent payment, but is still grateful for donors who can help make the next 30 percent payment possible.

The Washington Hotel family will be hosting a fundraiser at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Nevada City on March 12 and is scheduling community clean-up appointments for anyone interested in helping to clean up debris from around the hotel.

“I don’t know if I could ever reach the 400-foot goal. That sounds crazy. But the way I understand it, the insurers (with California FAIR) are like the Wizard of Oz. All you can do is email them or send them a letter. No one is spoken to. They only reply via US mail and if you ask for an answer to more than one question you will not get an answer to all of those questions. 400 feet is not achievable.”

In few words, Jackson said she had learned her lesson and unfortunately had to raise prices at her store to avoid an awkward situation like the one she is going through now.

“We try to keep prices down and there are a lot of tourists in the off-season, but our community is a disadvantaged community, so I have to do what I have to do,” Jackson said. “The scary thing is that there is a lot of repair and maintenance going on at this place because it is so old.

“I hear it’s going to be a long time,” she concluded. “But I keep hearing … that there seems to be an acknowledgment that there is such a problem and then some possible solutions being tossed around, so I think that’s hopeful.” But none of that is going to happen anytime soon.”

The Washington Hotel, Cafe and Bar is located at 15432 Washington Road in Washington, California. They can be reached at 530-265-4364 or at www.washingtonhotelca.com.