ORANGE - United Illuminating Co. confirmed that it has entered into a purchase and sales agreement with an Orange property owner and launched a study to determine whether it would be a good site for a consolidated corporate headquarters.

Although company spokeswoman Anita Steeves cautioned that UI is still looking at a site in West Haven, the purchase and sales agreement reached with an unidentified Orange property owner is the most substantive step yet taken by the company since announcing that it will move its corporate headquarters from New Haven by 2012, taking millions of dollars in tax revenue and hundreds of jobs along with it.

Steeves would not disclose the name of the property owner or the size and location of the parcel eyed by the utility giant, but UI is widely believed to be scouting Ernest Cuzzocreo Jr.'s 33 acres on Indian River Road; the company also is interested in a 30-acre site in West Haven.

"We basically have it on reserve and we're going to do a study to see if it would be feasible to build a facility there," Steeves said.

"No final decisions have been made … West Haven is still in the running."

Steeves said that the purchase and sales agreement reached this month allows the company to conduct a three-month feasibility study at the site. The agreement does not include a deposit or any other steps that would signal a sale is imminent, but Steeves said UI currently has no other similar agreements with any other property owner.

Newly elected Orange First Selectman James Zeoli said that the agreement is a good sign Orange may become UI's new home, but he is not treating it as a done deal yet. He said that he heard as recently as last Wednesday that UI was favoring a location in West Haven, identified by the company as a 30-acre municipal parcel along Water and Elm streets.

"It's the rumor mill," Zeoli said. "If it is indeed fact, (the agreement) is terrific news. It must strengthen our chances a little bit in getting a major taxpayer in Orange."

Although West Haven instituted a 90-day moratorium on shoreline development effective Dec. 17 that includes the property that interests UI, Steeves said Thursday that played no role in its decision to enter into an agreement with the Orange property owner, and the West Haven site is still very much in contention.

West Haven Mayor John M. Picard, also new to his office, said Thursday that he isn't worried the Orange agreement could derail efforts to entice UI to move to West Haven, adding that the company was "pretty forthright" on their intentions to review Orange as a site option. He also said that the moratorium, which prohibits the city from acting on or accepting any development proposals in a shoreline area that includes the site of interest to UI, would not hamper negotiations.

While outgoing Planning and Development Commissioner Edwin V. Selden disagreed and said the ban will eventually move the company towards Orange, he also said that the agreement at least shows that UI is nearing a decision.

"It does mean (UI is) moving forward quickly, diligently and those who wish to invest in that decision, like Orange and West Haven, need to be able to provide their best proposals," said Selden, who resigned last Saturday.

Considering that UI employs hundreds of people and contributes more than $3.12 million in annual property tax revenues to New Haven, the company has sparked a sort of competition among area communities since it announced that it would be moving its corporate headquarters from the Elm City and consolidating other facilities at a new site by the time its lease expires in 2012.

Among those rolling out the red carpet for the company was Milford, which tried to market the former Milford Jai-Alai fronton to UI before the deal fell through and the city sold it to developer Louis Ceruzzi Jr. in the hopes of bringing a Lowe's to the site.

Although right now the company is only seriously investigating property in Orange and West Haven, Steeves said that municipal officials and real estate brokers have pitched other properties to the company.

Steeves said the company has no timetable for when it plans to make a final decision. United Illuminating Co. is an electric transmission and distribution company that brings power to 320,000 residential, industrial and commercial customers from Bridgeport to New Haven, and it is owned by UIL Holdings Corp.