When Charity Jackson and her husband Cameron Collins purchased the Washington Hotel in the little town of the same name, they were well on their way to living out the dream of country living in a beautiful setting.
For the most part, the two have seen their vision come to fruition, until a few months ago when Jackson received a piece of mail that would change her life.
“On December 16, I opened a renewal notice from California FAIR Plan and it was (a bill) for $33,491. And that was a Friday at 4:50 in the afternoon so I cried,” Jackson said. “But I also thought, this must be a mistake, and I set it on my desk because no one was going to get back to me anyways.”
The California FAIR Plan, according to its website, was established to meet the needs of California homeowners unable to find insurance in the traditional marketplace. It is neither a state agency nor a public entity. They receive no funds from the public or taxpayers.
Jackson recalls that she phoned her insurance agent on the following Monday and spoke with him and her SBA loan broker. Because Jackson and Collins have a mortgage on the Washington Hotel business, they are required to have fire insurance, and regardless, Jackson said she would want the service anyway.
“I have always had insurance since I owned it,” said Jackson. “So anyway on (that) Monday I got on the phone with them and with California FAIR Plan and it was not a mistake. It’s a brush surcharge and it’s based on an inspection they did in February that I knew nothing about.
“I had no idea they were here, and I had no idea it was even done until I called after I got notice on December 16.”
When Jackson successfully connected with someone at California FAIR, she was informed they sent a letter in September advising that an inspection was going to take place and there would be a brush surcharge. Jackson said she received a copy of the letter, dated on the same day as another notice.
“One letter explained that they did the inspection back in February and this letter is dated in September,” Jackson said. “So seven months after (the inspection). I am saying I hadn’t seen it. Even if I had seen it I never would have equated this language to: ‘This means we are adding over $22,000 to your premium.’”
But that’s what happened.
Another letter dated September 22, 2022 stated it was an insurance request and repeatedly mentioned they would contact Jackson in order to arrange an inspection. Jackson said she was never contacted.
“I reached out to everyone,” she said. “I was like, this is crazy. From there…that Monday the 19th I contacted the county Board of Supervisors. Our representative is Hardy Bullock. He’s responded but I feel like we are kind of in holding now, pending my claim with the state but also I hope they’re all looking out for any grants that might be available; not necessarily for insurance but perhaps offset some repairs and maintenance around here. Or anything like that that would help me re-budget money.”
A letter to Jackson dated in December read the same as the first; in other words, another announcement of inspection. On December 21, California FAIR said they would contact her for inspection.
“Also in September they said they would contact me for inspection on the same day they sent this letter saying they hadn’t inspected back in February. I, prior to this, had not received the inspection, never knew they were here. Nothing.”
Jackson and Collins have been told by California FAIR that they need to clear 400 feet of brush and trees from the property surrounding Washington Hotel, which also serves as a restaurant and pub.
“California state code and Nevada County ordinance, 100 feet is all that it addresses,” continued Jackson. “The California code doesn’t even address outside of your boundaries. So they expect me to have 400 feet of responsibility and that goes into Forest Service land. We have advisors from Nevada County Fire Safe Council who are locals and they have seen the property. Our property is not at huge fire risk as far as concentrated brush and things like that.”
Jackson purchased the building, which was built in 1857, in 2017. In addition to her many loyal customers and familiar faces, Jackson has welcomed celebrities like chef Guy Fieri and rocker Billy Idol. She thinks it might serve as a respite to the attention they receive in any larger town.
“Before I was with California FAIR, I was with a company called Northfield,” continued Jackson, “and they non-renewed us in 2019 so that policy expired September of 2019. At that time my premium was $4,659. I had three months where I didn’t have insurance when (it) expired but then my broker shopped around as much as we could and we defaulted to California FAIR Plan, and my last year premium with them was $10,879. It’s far more reasonable that $33,000.”
Jackson pointed out that in her location, it can be hard to get by, especially in winter months. Her busy time, she said, begins in the spring and usually continues into November. She said it is rare for the hotel to have a weekend when there are no guests.
“This building, because of its age and location, does require a lot of maintenance, and then just doing business in California in general has a giant overhead,” said Jackson.
“All that’s fine because we love it here and we do it because we need to make a living but also because we love Washington and this place. But I don’t have $22,000 hanging around. That is a huge amount of money.
“What is daunting is that it’s annually and I was really ill-prepared for it. I can try to pivot and do whatever I possibly can within my power to plan for it and change prices, try to change whatever I can to accommodate it. But not having any notice and having it communicated the way that it was, was devastating. And thinking about it every year, working as hard as we work to keep this little place alive as it is, that feels a bit overwhelming at some 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 taking as many shifts as possible, especially since the increased fire insurance bill forced them to lay off a portion of their staff.
Meanwhile, in her free time, Jackson is shopping every insurance policy that might work for her business but finding little luck. Following referrals from friends, she has spent what she estimates to be about 60 hours of her life shopping for insurance, not including a tremendous amount of time contacting California FAIR, the state, the county, Nevada County Fire Safe council, Nevada County Resource Conservation District, and United States Forest Service.
“I have gotten almost all denials. There have been a couple of companies that said they would write (the policy) but they start at $50,000-$70,000,” said Jackson.
For now, Jackson is on a payment plan, made possible by zero interest-rate credit cards she has. 40 percent of her $33,000 payment has already been paid and thanks to a GoFundMe, she is set to make the next payment of 30 percent, but is still grateful for donors who can make the next 30 percent payment possible.
The Washington Hotel family will be holding a fundraiser at Nevada City’s Crazy Horse Saloon on March 12, and are planning community cleanup dates for anyone interested in pitching in to help clear debris from the area surrounding the hotel.
“I don’t know that I could ever get to the 400-foot goal. That sounds insane. But it is my understanding the underwriters (with California FAIR) are like the Wizard of Oz. You can only email them or send a letter. There’s no talking to anyone. They only respond by U.S. 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 attainable.”
With few words, Jackson said she has learned her lesson and unfortunately may need to raise prices in her establishment in order to avoid an unpleasant situation like the one she is enduring now.
“We try to keep prices low and we get 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. “What’s scary is this place has a lot of repairs and maintenance because it’s so old.
“I hear it’s going to take a long time,” she said. “But I keep hearing…that there does seem to be an acknowledgement that there is such a problem and then some possible solutions that are being kicked around so I guess that’s hopeful. But none of that is going to happen quickly.”
California FAIR and the U.S. Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
Washington Hotel, Café, and Bar is at 15432 Washington Road in Washington, California. They can be reached at 530-265-4364 or by visiting www.washingtonhotelca.com.